This year’s Budget debate is going to be remembered for one thing, and one thing only – all the drama associated with the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe charges against Chief Justice (CJ) Shirani Bandaranayake, and the subsequent developments which have now left the country on the verge of a constitutional [...]


Fallout from PSC sittings to impeach CJ overshadows Budget debate

House in disarray as it closes its doors on 2012 with confrontational politics on the cards for the new year

This year’s Budget debate is going to be remembered for one thing, and one thing only – all the drama associated with the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe charges against Chief Justice (CJ) Shirani Bandaranayake, and the subsequent developments which have now left the country on the verge of a constitutional crisis.

From the CJ’s first appearance before the Committee on November 23, and her subsequent walkout from it last Thursday, to the four Opposition members quitting the Committee, and then walking out of Parliament, the Committee Stage of the Budget debate has been dominated by the buzz generated by the PSC, with discussion on the past year’s performances and upcoming plans of various government institutions taking second place.

Even though discussion on the proceedings of the PSC were officially barred for MPs participating in Parliamentary debates, and despite a request by Speaker Chamal Rajapasksa, to members on both sides of the House, to refrain from commenting on the PSC, such niceties were largely ignored. The intense media scrutiny surrounding the PSC, also led to its Chairman Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, to request the Speaker to issue guidelines to the media, on how they report Committee proceedings, which the Speaker refrained from doing.

When CJ Bandaranayake came to Parliament for her second appearance before the Committee last Tuesday, the Government was not taking any chances, with all roads leading to Parliament closed and barricades erected to prevent intrusions. The move inconvenienced hundreds of commuters, but all the security did not prevent a group of pro-government supporters making it to near the Parliament roundabout, calling for the CJ’s resignation.

Democratic National Alliance (DNA) MP Anura Kumara Dissanayaka commented that, as he approached the Parliament Complex in Kotte on Tuesday, he felt more like he was approaching the Nanthikadal lagoon, than the Diyawanna Oya, due to the elaborate security arrangements put in place. Inside the Parliament building too, there were more restrictions in place, with journalists covering Parliamentary proceedings kept at bay this time around, and prohibited from lingering around the area where the PSC was in session.
However, with Parliamentary proceedings and the PSC meeting running parallel in the same building, more attention was directed at the developments taking place to remove the CJ.

Thursday evening, things turned dramatic, with the CJ and her lawyers walking out of the Committee, and by Friday, all four Opposition members in it, namely UNP MP John Amaratunga and Lakshman Kiriella, TNA MP R. Sampanthan and DNA MP Vijitha Herath quitting proceedings. After announcing why they decided to quit the Committee, to a hurriedly summoned press briefing held in a Parliament Committee Room, DNA MP Vijitha Herath attempted to speak on the matter, before leading an Opposition walkout of the Chamber. “We are walking out in protest at this unfair, one-sided Committee,” he said amidst interruptions by Government members.

Not to be outdone by Opposition manoeuvres, around 30 Government members who had signed the motion against the CJ, held a press briefing at the same venue soon afterwards, to give their views on the developments in the PSC. Public Administration Minister John Seneviratne who was among those who addressed the briefing, said that the walkout by the CJ and the actions by the Opposition indicate that there is a planned attempt to sabotage the working of the Committee. These are planned actions. The Opposition is trying to politicise this issue,” he said.

Friday was the day that the votes of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development was taken up for debate, and while the subject of Defence is one that usually generates a great deal of interest, this time around it too was overshadowed by the PSC sessions. However, the presence of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Officials’ Box prompted some Government members to make more robust speeches than they usually do, some forgetting to address the Chair and instead, looking at the Officials’ Box as they spoke, prompting TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran to remind a Government member that he should be addressing the Chair and not officials.

One debate that did generate some heat was when the votes of the Ministry of Housing and Construction were taken up on Thursday, with several UNP members taking Minister Wimal Weerawansa to task. Chief among them was MP Sajith Premadasa who has, over the years, clashed constantly with Minister Weerawansa about how many houses were built during the tenure of his father President Ranasinghe Premadasa.“The Minister does not even have proper numbers on how many homeless people are there in the country. There seems to be computer manipulation to give false figures of how many houses have been built, since he took over as Minister,” Mr. Premadasa charged.Minister Weerawansa in response said that, what was exaggerated was the number of houses that the UNP claims were built during the term in office of former President Premadasa. “Many of the housing projects for the low income groups in Colombo were started by Pieter Keuneman (who was Minister of Housing and Local Government under the SLFP) and not President Premadasa,” the Minister said.

Things got so heated towards the end of the debate that, when Minister Weerawansa asked the Chair for 10 more minutes to conclude his speech, UNP members called for a vote on whether to grant the extra time or not. While the Government side easily got an adequate number of votes to get the extra time, proceedings were delayed for at least 15 minutes to take a count and announce it to the House.

As Parliament sittings for 2012 wound up yesterday, there was one certainty, and i.e., the House is headed towards the confrontation zone, with a pending resolution to remove the CJ, as well as the controversial Divineguma Bill on the agenda for next year.

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