There was bad news for Sri Lankans from Parliament this week. It came in the form of an announcement on Tuesday by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that the Government is readjusting several taxes including the Value Added Tax (VAT), a move which has already driven prices of goods up, with more hikes likely to follow [...]


Charity begins at the House as lawmakers help themselves at taxpayers’ expense


There was bad news for Sri Lankans from Parliament this week. It came in the form of an announcement on Tuesday by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that the Government is readjusting several taxes including the Value Added Tax (VAT), a move which has already driven prices of goods up, with more hikes likely to follow in the days ahead. But in the same week there was good news for the country’s 225 parliamentarians. Behind closed doors, the Committee on Parliamentary Business agreed to give themselves (the MPs) generous allowances, which no doubt will do little to endear the public towards their elected representatives, at a time when they are heavily burdened with an increasing cost of living.

The allowances which will cost the taxpayer millions of rupees more, will be for the additional work that lawmakers will be required to undertake from now on, including attending sittings of the Constitutional Assembly on non-Parliament sitting days, for which they will be paid Rs 2, 500 per day, while MPs who attend the newly set up Sectorial Oversight Committees will be paid Rs 4,000 per day. MPs are paid Rs 500 per sitting day of Parliament at present.

In addition to these, MPs without official residences will be given Rs 50,000 per month as rent allowance, Rs 75,000 per month as a rent allowance to maintain an office in his/her constituency, and Rs 50,000 per month as official telephone facility. The Parliamentary Business Committee chaired by Speaker Karu Jayasuirya and comprising representatives of all political parties in Parliament, said the rationale behind this payout to MPs is to “provide for them (MPs) to carry out their functions efficiently and effectively as the people’s representatives.” The proposals will now go to Cabinet for approval.

And while MPs were getting additional financial benefits which will add to the many other facilities they already enjoy, Parliament got down to the business of more mundane matters of passing legislation to make it a statutory obligation to give Rs 2,500 allowance to private sector employees whose salaries are less than Rs 40,000 per month. Along with this, Parliament also approved legislation to set the national minimum monthly wage for all workers in any industry or service at Rs 10,000, with the daily minimum wage set at Rs 400. While these amounts are grossly inadequate, going by the high cost of living in the country, these two pieces of legislation will go some way towards affording private sector workers a small measure of relief.

Meanwhile, Parliament this week cleared the first hurdle to framing a new Constitution for the country, by unanimously adopting the Resolution to set up a Constitutional Assembly that would see the entire Parliament converted into a Committee to draft a Constitution Bill.

The Resolution was adopted with several amendments on Wednesday; exactly two months after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesighe presented it to the House on January 9. Due to squabbling among members of the different political parties over the contents in the original Resolution, several amendments were moved so as to appease all the lawmakers, hence facilitating the passage of the Resolution with it being put to a vote.

With the Resolution now approved, all 225 MPs will sit as a Committee of Parliament, with Speaker Karu Jayasuirya as its Chairman. It will also consist of seven Deputy Chairmen, while the quorum for meetings of the Assembly has been fixed at 20.
At the first meeting of the Committee, a date for which is yet to be decided, a timeframe for the drafting of a new Constitution will be fixed, as well as sitting days, times etc. It has been decided that sittings will be held in the Parliament Chamber on non-sitting days of Parliament.

Winding up the debate on the historic Resolution, the Premier said the present set of legislators have the rare opportunity to participate in the making of a new Constitution under a National Government, which has brought together the two main political parties in the country. “We have to grasp this opportunity and make a genuine effort to frame a new Constitution, taking the views of the public into consideration,” he said.

All MPs welcomed the move to do away with the 1978 Constitution and were of the view that the twin evils in the present Constitution namely, the excessive powers of the executive presidency and the electoral system, have to be done away with.
The Premier said that there is about 50% agreement on electoral reforms to replace the present Proportional Representation (PR) system of elections. “What we propose should be agreeable to small parties as well. Their representation in the House should be ensured, but at the same time, we also have to ensure a stable Parliament,” he said.

And while things were cooling down with the joint opposition group happy that their demands for a bigger say in parliamentary affairs being recognized by the Speaker, and their decision to back the Constitutional assembly resolution, things got heated when former Army Commander Field Marshal (FM) Sarath Fonseka who was recently sworn in as a National List MP, as well as a Cabinet Minister, came out firing on all cylinders in his maiden speech in the House, taking on his nemeses former President and now Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa.

During his nearly hour-long speech, FM Fonseka accused the Rajapaksas of extrajudicial killings, financial misappropriation and for having links with the LTTE. He called for new investigations into the “white flag” case. He also said the UN was welcome to investigate allegations of war crimes committed during the war. “These investigations should proceed transparently and in an internationally accepted manner. I commanded the war in accordance with all international humanitarian laws, while protecting human rights. If there had been a few who breached those, they must be dealt under the law,” he said.

No doubt it was a speech aimed at settling old scores with the Rajapaksas, and for now, the former President who is a sitting MP, has shied away from responding to these allegations from the floor of the House.

With the Prime Minister telling lawmakers in the joint opposition on Friday, to get ready for more revelations regarding large scale frauds committed during the previous regime, and to be ready with their lawyers to answer to these charges, it is likely that the former President and his family members will hear a lot more of what FM Fonseka said this week.

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