The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) faction in the government has decided to appoint its own Cabinet spokesman, indicating the increasing differences it has with the United National Party (UNP). The immediate cause for the decision seems to be the clash between co-Cabinet spokesman and Health Minister, Rajitha Senaratne and Labour Minister W.D.J. Seneviratne over a suggestion reportedly made by President Maithripala Sirisena on countering trade union action.
In the wake of a series of protests by various groups and on the eve of a countrywide strike by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), the President had suggested that the task of maintaining essential services be assigned to former army commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. This suggestion immediately opened a can of worms. Health Minister Senaratne who broke the news to the media at a weekly news conference meant for the announcement of Cabinet decisions was of the opinion that it was a serious proposal whereas Minister Seneviratne argued saying it was only a joke. This led even to some sort of a personal verbal dual between the two ministers as a result of which the SLFP called for the appointment of their own Cabinet spokesman.
This indicates that the Cabinet spokesmen would in future give the media two different versions on certain matters, either from the same platform or by holding a separate media briefing, a ludicrous situation indeed. On the other hand this suggests that the version of one political party in the government is not acceptable to another party. This naturally raises the question as to how then that the ordinary masses could believe what the government now says.
The members of a government, especially its ministers are supposed to speak in one voice on the basis of the Cabinet’s collective responsibility which is a constitutional requirement. The Constitution says, “There shall be a Cabinet of Ministers, charged with the direction and control of the Government of the Republic of Sri Lanka, collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament.” Therefore there cannot be more than one version in matters relating to governance.
If one looks at such matters from a partisan perspective he or she would justify the SJFP also having a Cabinet spokesman as two ministers currently function as Cabinet spokesmen, Rajitha Senarathna and Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilake who are from the UNP. But if the two main parties in the government have decided to work towards a common goal and as a “national or unity government”, as they boast sometimes, there cannot be two versions on the government’s achievements and failures or its expectations and targets.
Already the government is divided on many matters. The UNP, as promised during the presidential and parliamentary elections, wants to adopt a totally new Constitution while the SLFP faction in the government wants just to amend some of the Articles of the Constitution. The factions in the government were seen last month fighting over the ways of garbage disposal with one wanting to recycle the Meethotamulla garbage while another was proposing that the garbage be transported to another area. One group in the government argues in favour of holding the local government elections under the old system while another group favours holding them under the new system. As thing are at present, the statement issued by the government would confuse the people further by officially appointing Cabinet spokesmen on party lines.
A country cannot move forward without a single specific goal or objective pursued by the entire government with one mind. The term “national or unity government” would be a laughing stock unless the government works towards a common goal and the ministers speak in one voice.