BY Dinesh Weerakkody
The government has been in office for two years and its agenda to many people still seems to be disconnected from the hopes and expectations of those who elected it to office on the promise of good governance. However, the government needs to be commended for its positive initiatives and its willingness to listen to constructive criticism of some of the current policies and actions.
The trade unions in the country, which are virtually on the streets on a daily basis, must also exercise the democratic right of protest peacefully, without causing destruction to life or property. Negotiating with a sense of responsibility and accountability to settle a trade union dispute is at the heart of the right to establish and function as unions.
The government’s record on corruption and law enforcement has also been disappointing. It has established various new institutions and promised to strengthen the traditional ones like the Police and Attorney General’s Department. Yet, these agencies struggle to cope, lacking adequate resources and personnel to handle their responsibilities.
There are also constant allegations of selective prosecutions due to political influence at various levels. Inevitably these agencies are perceived as inefficient and lethargic or acting under the directions of various political lobbies.
Therefore, the government’s forthcoming strategy should now focus on some priority areas in which the government must act immediately, if the president and prime minister are to retain the confidence of the majority of citizens who elected them to office and also expand that constituency to support its reform agenda.
The last two weeks has been very testing times for the president and prime minister, starting with Ravi Karunanayake’s resignation to Wijedasa Rajapaksa’s sacking from the cabinet. Overtly both the president and prime minister seem to say and do the right things. But for them delivering on their promises has been a big problem.
For the president and prime minister, the chief prelate’s recent comments should have set off alarm bells. That must surely be a wakeup call for all those prime ministerial and presidential advisers and for those ministers walking a couple of feet above the ground, to stop globetrotting and focus on fixing the domestic issues.
For example, the SITAM student issue should have been fixed decisively by now. Not doing so has resulted in the government getting bashed on social media. The government has not responded effectively to the onslaught on social media. They are making the same mistake of the previous administration by not responding to the criticism. Leaving it in the hands of few public servants is not an option for this government. Issues that affect the public on a daily basis need decisive leadership.
Some weeks back also saw the SriLankan Airlines leadership getting hauled in front of the Cabinet of Ministers for a full performance review. Ideally, this review should have happened at the ministry level. Ironically, the current board inherited a badly wounded airline.
The airline like any rundown company needed a lot of time to get over the financial mess created by the last board. The mistake however the current board made is they did not really understand how the government would respond, when challenged. The leadership of the airline attempted to run it like a public listed company, hoping their decisions would eventually get ratified because some of them were politically connected.
This attitude obviously upset the subject minister resulting in the minister criticizing the board for acting in a high handed manner. The minister also said in public that appointments to certain key positions in the airline should have been done on merit, given the magnitude of the
On the other hand, the public wanted the airline to get its act together fast and moved towards financial stability and to take legal action based on the Attorney Weliamuna Report. The indecision on the part of the airline when it came to cancelling the aircraft orders, leasing new aircraft resulting in the airline taking a huge hit as highlighted by the Auditor General also hurt the government’s credibility.
The government must from now on push hard to finalize a public-private partnership to manage the airline. This should become a national priority for the government to regain the confidence of the public.
Disillusionment must end
Today there is a sense of disillusionment with the government. Its progress in delivering on the promises to be found in its election manifesto is much too slow. The exception is giving the people freedom from fear and the space to protest. However, the battle against corruption appears to be lost.
Little or nothing is heard anymore about the work of the Bribery and Corruption Commission, which under its former head, Dilrukshi Wickremasinghe, actively engaged with civil society and took on high publicity cases to investigate and to prosecute.
She was willing to take risks and court danger. But she did not receive the bipartisan support from both parties in government that she needed to tackle those guilty of corruption on both sides. The battle for transitional justice with regard to the ethnic conflict is also going very slow.
In October 2015, the government promised to the international community and Tamil people that it would set up four mechanisms to deal with issues of truth, missing persons, accountability and reparations. But so far it is the only legislation with regard to missing persons that has been passed into law.
After being in abeyance for nearly six months since the law was passed, it is now in the process of being amended. There are efforts to reduce the scope of the legislation due to pressures from the defence authorities who fear that this mechanism will be used to gather information that will one day be used against them in a court of law.
The problem with regard to the country taking a new direction is akin to putting old wine into new bottles. Little or nothing is changing for the better. Those who held positions of responsibility in the past, when corruption and impunity prevailed, continue to hold high office in the present. As firebrand Dr. Rajitha Senarathne has said many times the vested interests that prefer the status quo are still extremely powerful.
The only thing new in the government is the bipartisan agreement that the UNP and SLFP have entered into, which includes the formation of the national unity government. It is this new element that needs to be utilized in the national interest. It was this hitherto unprecedented coming together of the UNP and SLFP under the leaderships of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena that promised the dawn of a new era.
Therefore, the government’s responsibility is to resource and support the public system to achieve excellence, while all the other stakeholders should act according to established guidelines and norms. If this does not happen nothing much will be achieved by the country.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a thought leader)