Soon after the question time was over, it was UNP co-deputy leader Sajith Premadasa, who rose on his feet on a point of order to make his remarks against the bill. He, in this manner, set the stage for a legal wrangle that longed for more than one hour in the House. In his remarks, he tried to drive home the point that the bill was unconstitutional and therefore it should be shelved. Subsequently, UNP MP’s Palitha Range Bandara , Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe , Karu Jayasuriya , Ajith Perera, Dayasiri Jayasekara and Joseph Michael Perera joined the chorus interpreting the provisions of the bill in terms of the Constitution and the parliamentary standing orders. They questioned not only the morality of the bill but also the legality of it. They said that the bill, if passed, would definitely violate the fundamental rights of individuals guaranteed in the Constitution.
One cannot rule out the fact that the UNP has special interests in its efforts to reverse the bill in the House without allowing it to be debated. Out of the 37 companies listed in the Bill, one is Sevanagala Sugar Industries Ltd, belonging to the party’s Ampara district organizer Daya Gamage. Therefore, the UNP could have seen the bill as an attempt to politically victimize its party member.
After the opposition MPs aired out their views on the new bill cited by them as a draconian piece of legislation, Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva was the first to counter the UNP. In his opening remarks, he shifted his focus away from the contents of the bill, and made it a debate to the parameters of power between the Legislature and the judiciary. He admitted that the Supreme Court had exclusive jurisdiction to determine whether the bill was constitutional or not.
“The Supreme Court has determined that the bill is constitutional. Therefore, we cannot accept the arguments put forward by the opposition. Also, we cannot stop our work in Parliament merely because of pending court cases. Parliament has the supreme authority in this case. Parliament represents people’s mandate,” he said.
His ideas were widely asserted by his colleagues such as Petroleum Minister Susil Premajayantha. The arguments and counter arguments based on sharp legal points compelled the Speaker to suspend the sittings for half an hour. “I will suspend the sittings for half an hour and announce whether the debate can be taken up or not,” he said.
The House resumed day’s business at 3.40pm, as anticipated, the Speaker gave the go ahead for the debate on the bill. He reasoned his ruling, among others, to the matter that the Cabinet had decided the bill as something urgently needed in the national interests of the country.
Subsequently, the debate kicked off in the well-attended chamber of the House. Equally filled was the public gallery with school children and the owners and employees of some of the business ventures to be acquired under the bill.
Main among those who joined the debate was Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa who took more than one hour to explain the circumstances that led to the introduction of this bill, and the purpose of it. Refuting allegations that the bill was drafted in a hurry, he said that thorough studies were done into the affairs of the companies listed for acquisition. Referring to reports on each of them, the Minister said that some of them had been closed down years back, and their owners had not paid compensations to their employees even.
The debate took an emotional form when the Minister started referring to Sevanagala Sugar Industries Ltd. By the time, proprietor of the company Daya Gamage was listening to the debate in the public gallery whereas his wife Anoma Gamage was gathering points, as a UNP MP.
“Initially, I did not intend to talk about Sevenagala Sugar Industries Ltd., because of my personal friendship with Daya Gamage. Also, I did not want to do it in the presence of Mr. Gamage’s wife sitting in the opposition at the moment,” Minister Rajapaksa said.
Visibly nerved by Mr. Rajapaksa’s remarks, Mrs. Gamage said, “You better speak. Then, we can counter it with proper information. Otherwise, it will be misleading.”
Despite repeated denials by Mrs. Gamage, the Minister charged that the company had been incurring losses. Also, he charged that the management of the company had failed to honour the agreement signed with the government when it was privatized.
Government benchers maintained pin drop silence when Mr. Rajapaksa made his remarks. Yet, there were indecent behaviour by them when opposition MPs tried to counteract Mr. Rajapaksa.
After Mr. Rajapaksa, JVP parliamentary group leader grabbed the attention of the House through time tested and pointed presentation of facts for and against the provision of the bill. For him, the manner in which these ventures were privatized was flawed in many ways. Assets were not properly valuated, and the tender procedures violated when privatizing them from time to time in the past. Yet, Mr. Dissanayake blew a frontal attack on the present government acting in a duplicitous attempt to take over them, even without giving a fair share of hearing to their owners. Here, a moral issue is involved. Also, he was the only member to draw parallels between this bill and other urgent bills introduced in the past.
“On other occasions where urgent bills were introduced, aggrieved parties were given a chance to appeal against their cases. Here, no such chance exists. The bill has listed the companies to be acquired. Once the bill is passed, aggrieved parties cannot go to court. Is this reasonable?” he asked.
At the end of the day, the bill was passed with a majority of 76 votes. All the opposition parties, the religious dignitaries, the chambers of commerce and civil society activists were not in favour of the bill.
By Kelum Bandara
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