Confusion over who is doing what as subjects change; public officials don’t know what to do Twenty Gazette notifications  on changes in recent months There is more haggling in Sri Lanka’s corridors of power than there is in any of the country’s marketplaces. Horse-trading has reached unprecedented levels, resulting in frequent changes within Government. Ministerial, [...]


Portfolios in a political pickle


  • Confusion over who is doing what as subjects change; public officials don’t know what to do
  • Twenty Gazette notifications  on changes in recent months

There is more haggling in Sri Lanka’s corridors of power than there is in any of the country’s marketplaces. Horse-trading has reached unprecedented levels, resulting in frequent changes within Government.

Ministerial, deputy ministerial jobs, even toothless State ministerial gigs are bartered monthly for political allegiances that, again, shift overnight. The sheer number of gazettes announcing resignations, appointments and the reassignment of ministerial duties and functions bear witness to just how widespread the malaise is.

Between August 2014 (when this trend started in earnest) and June 2015, there are more than 20 gazettes related to Cabinet and other positions. These included amendments of subjects, duties and functions; appointments of ministers, deputy ministers and state ministers; removal of certain subjects from ministers; and resignations of ministers, deputy ministers and state ministers. It calculates to an average of two notifications a month.

These reshuffles–conducted for political expediency and not for imperatives of governance — have placed ministries, departments and institutions in a state of flux. While most did not wish to be quoted for fear of disciplinary action, officials confessed that they were unable to “settle down and work” because they could not predict the next change.

“Everyone is just waiting,” admitted the director general of a regulatory authority. “We don’t know what will happen each week. There is a lot of uncertainty.” The head of a corporation said that, while they had a knowledgeable and effective minister, they could not carry out substantive work because of the “interim nature” of the Government.

Employees have hosted welcoming ceremonies for ministers, only to see the back of them a few weeks later. Officials scramble to educate each new entrant on their respective subjects. Files go here and there. There are documents to be signed and projects to be considered. There are plans to be formulated and implemented, papers to be sent up to Cabinet. There are outstanding problems to be solved and laws to be drafted. The high turnover of ministers, deputies and state ministers has complicated the business of governance on all fronts.

The subject of higher education is a tragic illustration of this status quo. The President first appointed Rajiva Wijesinha as State Minister of Higher Education. A week later, Kabir Hashim –who was already Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion — was given the ministerial portfolio of Higher Education. This placed him above Prof. Wijesinha, who is on record saying he was taken unawares.

On the same day, Eran Wickramaratna was made Deputy Minister of Higher Education in addition to Highways and Investment Promotion. Ten weeks later, Prof Wijesinha resigned. On March 26, a gazette was issued taking away the Higher Education portfolio from Mr. Hashim and assigning it to Sarath Amunugama, who had just pledged his loyalty to President Sirisena (as these things happen). He was also gifted the subject of Research. Sudharshani Fernandopulle was made Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Research.

Even the official gazettes do not accurately reflect this giddy chronology of events. In practice, Prof Wijesinha’s appointment preceded Mr. Hashim’s. On paper, both their appointments are published as being effective from January 12, 2015.
The Civil Aviation portfolio is another example. Faizer Mustapha was the first State Minister of Aviation. He soon got down to brass tacks, tasking officials with producing a report about the ill-fated Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport and its prospects for recovery.

By the time the document was ready, President Sirisena had given Arjuna Ranatunga the Aviation portfolio in addition to Ports and Shipping. Mr. Mustapha resigned in a huff. On March 26, Mr. Ranatunga lost Aviation to Reginald Cooray who became Aviation Minister in return for a newly-declared devotion to President Sirisena.

Another fresh convert, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, became Deputy Minister of Aviation Services. Again, some of the gazettes do not reflect events according to their proper timeline. Then, on June 9, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena was promoted to Minister of Parliamentary Affairs.

Gayantha Karunatilleka had held the Parliamentary Affairs portfolio first. He lost it to Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena in the reshuffle of March 26. But Mahinda Yapa resigned from Cabinet two months later, conveniently freeing up the position for the other Yapa Abeywardena.

There is now no Deputy Minister of Aviation. This has not been conveyed to the institutions under the Ministry of Aviation. One office, when contacted this week, maintained that the Deputy Minister was Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and was surprised to learn he was now in charge of a completely different area of work.

A notable feature of President Sirisena’s administration is that large ministries are breezily carved up and ladled out to different MPs based on what side they took in a particular week. The first Cabinet had 28 ministers, 10 ministers of state and 9 deputy ministers of state. But it soon became necessary to buy over allegiances, particularly to make up the numbers in parliament.
So, John Amaratunga started out as Minister of Public Order, Disaster Management and Christian Affairs until A.H.M. Fowzie was assigned Disaster Management. Joseph Michael Perera was Minister of Home Affairs and Fisheries but Mahinda Amaraweera then took over as Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Karu Jayasuriya was Minister of Public Administration, Provincial Councils, Local Government and Democratic Governance until Janaka Bandara Tennekoon accepted the Provincial Councils and Regional Development portfolios. Similarly, Duminda Dissanayake held Irrigation and Agriculture but lost Irrigation to Vijith Vijayamuni Sosya; and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had the Justice and Labour Relations portfolios until S.B. Nawinna tripped over to become Labour Minister.

Such sweeping changes also require subjects, duties and functions to be reallocated. Various institutions are removed from one ministry’s purview and placed under another. Between January 10 and May 5, this year, no less than seven gazettes were issued defining, amending and reassigning the duties and functions of various ministers.

New portfolios are sometimes created to accommodate incoming loyalists. The original Cabinet did not have a Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training; or a Ministry of Rural Economic Affairs; or a Ministry of Special Projects. These were made up later. Naturally, there must then be Deputy Ministers and State Ministers for those ministries — more plums in the pie.
Nothing best illustrates the confusion than the list published on the Presidential Secretariat’s own information website. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena is entered in one column as Minister of Parliamentary Affairs. Elsewhere, Laxman (note the spelling) Yapa Abeywardena is named as Deputy Minister of Aviation Services.

Arjuna Ranatunga is still Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation but Reginald Cooray is Minister of Aviation Services. Karu Jayasuriya keeps his Provincial Councils portfolio but Janaka Bandara Tennekoon is also Provincial Councils and Local Development Minister.

And till yesterday, the Presidential Secretariat’s official online list included two Ministers of Higher Education and two Deputy Ministers of Higher Education: Kabir Hashim, Sarath Amunugama, Eran Wickramaratna and Sudharshani Fernandopulle, respectively!

However, the website has been correctly updated to reflect the resignations that took place in recent months. According to its list, therefore, the administration now has 40 ministers, 14 ministers of state and 28 deputy ministers. That is a total of 82 for a Government that was to have lasted 100 days.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.