Tempers rise over soaring CoL and UNF stance on Iraq war
By Chandani Kirinde, Our Lobby Correspondent
The war in the gulf and the escalating cost of living were the main subjects of debate in Parliament last week with the opposition engaging in a lot of American bashing as well as levelling severe criticism at the government’s inability to control prices of essential goods.

The war against Iraq almost seemed to have spilled over to the Chambers of the House with opposition legislators accusing the government of behaving like subjugates of the USA and for failing to make an official statement on its stance on the war despite calls by the opposition to do so. They also warned the government not to use the war as an excuse to increase prices. The two issues came up for discussion on Wednesday when

the Articles and Services (Regulations and Maintenance) Bill, later amended as (Temporary Provisions) Bill as suggested by the Supreme Court, was taken up for debate.

This piece of legislation was presented on Tuesday as an urgent Bill to provide for a strategy to deal with shortages likely to arise due to outbreak of hostilities outside Sri Lankan territory and to ensure the availability of essential items and equal distribution of these items at fair prices. The Bill also provides for maintenance of utility services essential to public life and to regulate the prices of such services.

The absence of Consumer Affairs Minister Ravi Karunanayake to present the Bill irked many in the opposition especially Dr.Sarath Amunugama who questioned why Mr.Karunanayake was not present if the Bill was as important as it was made out to be. "It is a convention of this House that an urgent bill be presented by the Minister. This is a grave discourtesy to the House," he said.

However, Chief Government Whip and Labour Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who presented it said that standing orders has the provision for a Cabinet Minister or Deputy Minister to present a Bill to the House in the absence of the concerned Minister and accused Mr.Amunugama of trying to mislead the House.

The following day when the Bill was taken up for debate, Mr.Karunanayake was present and after his initial remarks, he said he saw no reason why a debate was necessary on this Bill as it was for the benefit of the people and no one could object to it.

"This is the first time such a Bill has been presented to this House. The war in the Gulf will create certain pressures on our markets but we are ready to meet any contingencies," he assured the House.

Mr.Karunanayake's words did not go down well with the opening opposition speaker Nimal Siripala De Silva who said the Minister sounded happy that the war had started without the backing of the United Nations (UN). The UNF has destroyed the non-aligned image of this country that had been built up over the years and instead endorsed everything that the US does," he said.

He also expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of this Bill stating it was likely to be confined to the book. The JVP's group leader in Parliament Wimal Weerawansa too was critical of the government pro-American stance. "Does the Prime Minister have enough guts to come to this House and make a statement condemning the attack on Iraq? Can he at least whisper an objection against the US action? " he asked.

Mr.Weerawansa was equally critical of the Consumer Affairs Minister stating he was misleading the people. "His promises of reduced prices are limited to TV and newspapers. Now this Act will be used to make hurried purchases and only a handful of his people will benefit from it," he said.

Another PA legislator Reggie Ranatunaga too attacked the government's poor economic management saying the economy was floating around like a rudderless boat." The price of goods has increased by 35 per cent since this government took office. You should have brought this Bill long ago to control prices," he said.

Mr.Karunanayake came in for the harshest criticism from PA National list MP Mahinda Amaraweera who said that the Minister was deceiving the people by saying that prices of consumer goods were down while a handful of people were enjoying all the perks at the Ministry.

"I went to "Sathosa" and checked the prices of the essential goods such as rice, sugar, milk powder, dhal etc. They are all five rupees or more than what the minister say they cost. I wonder where these cheap goods he is talking about are available. I don't think even a shop owned by his father sells goods at the rates he says they are sold, " Mr.Amaraweera said.

There were a few government speakers who wanted to touch on the subject of the cost of living. Instead Foreign Employment Welfare Minister Lakhman Yapa Abeywardena spoke on the arrangements the government had made to evacuate Lankan workers employed in West Asia if the necessity arose.

He also accused the opposition of having no alternative policies but being critical of the good work of the government."If we didn't bring this Bill, you would have asked why we didn't plan for the war. Now that we have introduced it, you are still trying to criticize it," he said.

Deputy Consumer Affairs Minister Jayasundera Wijekoon said the Bill was intended to safeguard the consumers from blackmarketeers and unscrupulous traders. He said it would also ensure there were no food shortages." We have had a good harvest. We have paddy stocks to last six to seven months even if people consume rice three times a day," he said.

Mr.Wijekoon also said the opposition was trying to make out as if the war was started by Minister Karunanayake."He didn't start this war nor can he stop it. You are trying to slander him," the Deputy Minister said. Mr.Karunanayake chose not to answer his critics in his closing remarks asking them to level whatever charges they had against him outside and not under the cover of privilege as he could then deal with them.

The Bill was passed unanimously in the House but several amendments had to be made as suggested by the Supreme Court. On Tuesday, Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapakse made a statement to the House urging the government to grant an immediate pay raise to employees in both the public and private sectors, as the cost of living was unbearable.

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