Hee … hee, cackled Kussi Amma Sera. “Mey balanna, Mahattaya. Ekapaththakin atha ussanawa, aanith paththen atha bassanawa,” she said, raising her head from the morning newspaper and pointing to a news story she was reading. The article in context was headlined: ‘I will return ownership of H’tota Port to the people: Wijeyadasa’, where Justice and [...]

Business Times

Reining in ‘talkative’ ministers


Hee … hee, cackled Kussi Amma Sera. “Mey balanna, Mahattaya. Ekapaththakin atha ussanawa, aanith paththen atha bassanawa,” she said, raising her head from the morning newspaper and pointing to a news story she was reading.

The article in context was headlined: ‘I will return ownership of H’tota Port to the people: Wijeyadasa’, where Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was reported to have said that the sale of the Hambantota Harbour to the Chinese was wrong and “assured the public that he would not rest until he regains its ownership on behalf of the people”.

In the newspaper interview in the Sunday Lankadeepa, the Minister also says that as a politician he had always done what was right by the country and fought against corruption.

While Rajapakshe’s vendetta is murky given his alleged association with matters relating to Avant Garde, the point being raised by Kussi Amma Sera is different.

“Cabinet theenduwak denakota, amathila okkoma ekathuwendhaona neda? Ethin kohomada passeviruddhawenne,” she asked.

KAS is absolutely right. By challenging the lease (not sale) of the Hambantota Port to a Chinese company, he is complaining about a decision made by a Cabinet of which he is a member.

Since what goes on in the Cabinet is confidential and only few details are released to the public (acrimony, bitter arguments and opposing views are not officially conveyed to the media), it is unclear whether the Minister raised his hand in support of the Hambantota Port deal or not. Even so, a Cabinet decision, whether by a majority or not, has to be respected and publicly backed by every Minister (even though they are privately opposed to it) under the hallowed rule of “collective responsibility”.

Section 42 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka provides for the appointment of a Cabinet of Ministers charged with the direction and control of the “Government of the Republic”. In the same section, sub-section (2) states: “The Cabinet of Ministers shall be collectively responsible and answerable to Parliament.”

Under this, Ministers are bound by a code of conduct and apart from, accepting and defending to the hilt any Cabinet decision (however unpalatable it would be and pricks their conscience), they are bound by any government decision.

Ministers criticising their Cabinet colleagues in this coalition government which is happening more frequently than in the past is contrary to the above provision and unwritten code of conduct. A ‘conscience’ vote, in the context of freedom of expression, may be necessary to be incorporated in the future for Ministers to freely express their views. Until then, they should quit, rather than play to the gallery or vote-base and in so doing confuse the people as to whether they are in government or not.

The Maithripala-Ranil Government came into power on a platform of free expression and an end to corruption and thuggery. While that expression is evident through mounting street protests and the media with carte blanche powers, government Ministers have gone over the rails with this ‘freedom’, talking out of turn or being ‘‘too talkative”. It is as if they don’t know the rules of the game or laid down Cabinet guidelines or simply don’t care what people think as long as they enjoy the fruits of power, its perks and its benefits.

In a sense, the present regime appears to be one of the most unfortunate governments. For instance, it took just 47 days (not even two months) for the Government to face its first crisis and which has now become its biggest problem, dogging the administration at every step. After Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential vote on January 8, 2015, the infamous Central Bank bond issue happened on February 27. Not having learnt a bitter lesson after all the furore or displaying sheer arrogance, the same parties involved in the February 27 scam, were back at it again in another bond drama on March 26, 2016.

Thus, instead of time to settle in, make things work and put the country on a proper economic footing, Sirisena, in particular, has been fire-fighting issue after issue with ministers and government politicians pulling in different directions. With bond issues spiralling out of control, leading eventually to the resignation of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who was the Finance Minister until recently swapping portfolios with Mangala Samaraweera, the Government has hardly had time to get its act together and put up a bold front to the world and declare: “We are ready for business. Come. Invest.”

Much of the investments appear to be old proposals dusted from BOI cupboards which had not been proceeded with in the past for one reason or the other. Last year, the level of foreign investment was dismal while the authorities hope for better times in 2017. Tourism has been the one silver lining with rapid investments coming in.

While Karunanayake’s resignation may instill some confidence in the minds of investors, the latter is also looking for stability, consistency particularly in tax policies and fewer street protests which inconvenience business, business confidence and sentiment.

In fact, the influential Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in a research released this week on tax revenue collection by the state, remarked that members of its Taxation Committee had “concerns that the tax policy is likely to be influenced by populist demands and political pressures in the year ahead. Further, continued uncertainty with regard to changes to tax legislation and the difficulty in understanding the impact of such changes is likely to have an adverse impact on overall business activity and investor confidence, particularly if tax changes are not subject to a robust consultative process with the taxpayer community”.

The Government cannot be too pleased with the Ravi K resignation and turn it into a celebration of a new era of governance because the events leading to the resignation came owing to a kind of ‘kane shot’ discovery during evidence led at the Bond Commission where it transpired that the Minister was residing in an apartment in which the lease had been paid by a suspect in the bond scam, raising questions of impropriety and conflict of interest. While everyone was out for Ravi’s blood, many other Ministers should likewise be stepping down on conflict of interest issues or expelled from the Cabinet, which the President is empowered to do on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The bigger issue, however, is that by speeding up the inquiry into the bond scam and unearthing startling evidence day after day, the Attorney General’s Office is facing accusations that it has been dragging for over two years probes and corruption crimes committed during the former regime running to billions of rupees for which accused politicians and their corrupt business friends should have been behind bars by now.

This includes the pump-and-dump investors in the Colombo stock market several years ago, a probe that eventually led to the resignation of two key regulators rather than reining-in the culprits. The AG’s Office however argues that the FCID hasn’t done its job properly and cases cannot be filed on flimsy investigations.

The Government puts up a bold face and claims that everything is hunky dory and that investors will soon “come in droves”. This is far from the truth. It is only if and when corrupt politicians and their coteries of the former regime are put behind bars for skimming the country of trillions of rupees through corrupt deals, and the President reins-in his ministers to speak with one voice, that the country can breathe freely and investments will kick in.

As I wind up writing this, KAS butts in asking: “Mahattaya, Ravi Mattaya apahueida Marapone Mahattaya wagey (Will Ravi K return just like Marapone)?” I offer no response.

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