With elections round the corner, the Finance Ministry wants to play Santa Claus. The Treasury’s latest proposal is to provide duty-free cars to senior public servants on retirement. When the Cabinet paper was first introduced in March this year, it was referred to the Public Administration Ministry which only expanded the ambit of the recipients. [...]


Treasury playing double game


With elections round the corner, the Finance Ministry wants to play Santa Claus. The Treasury’s latest proposal is to provide duty-free cars to senior public servants on retirement. When the Cabinet paper was first introduced in March this year, it was referred to the Public Administration Ministry which only expanded the ambit of the recipients. One can be excused if the famous quote of the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that elections in Sri Lanka is an auction of non-existent resources comes to mind.

On the one hand, the Finance Ministry put a stop to the President slipping in a Cabinet paper to reimburse Rs. 4.4 billion in unpaid bills of the previous Administration to various state and private parties. It also issued strict directives to all heads of state institutions recently to take prudent measures towards minimising waste and the need for the economical usage of funds as the Easter Sunday attacks and debt servicing loans have left the government cash strapped. Trimming overtime payments, saving on electricity and even the use of stationery were called for. International lending institutions, meanwhile, are regularly demanding that Governments cut the fat from a bloated public service. Then there are millions of US dollars to be paid in settlement of outstanding arbitration awards against Sri Lanka. On top of all this comes the bonanza in issuing duty free permits.

What kind of financial discipline operates at the Finance Ministry is anybody’s guess. The credo seems to be ‘serve yourself if the spoon is in your hand’. Clearly, senior public servants need better salaries. Instead of complying with the recommendations of the Salaries and Cadres Commission, the Budget rectified salary anomalies of retiring senior executive officers and ministry secretaries, and they also got vehicle permits on concessionary terms in 2016. Now they are asking for duty-free permits – like Members of Parliament. On the other hand, the Treasury opposed an interim allowance of Rs 2,500 for employees of public enterprises (state corporations and statutory boards). Only the topmost tiers of the public service are asking for more perks.

The Government’s total outstanding external debt has increased to US$ 52,310 million by the end of 2018 and the annual debt repayment commitments are between 4-5 billion US dollars from this year onward.

Sweeping promises to upgrade the salaries of public servant are aimed at winning votes. This Government fell into difficulties by giving an across the board salary increase soon after the Presidential election in 2015 so that it could win the Parliamentary elections months later. Ad-hoc decisions are the rule.

Giving perks in the form of duty-free vehicles is a rip-off of the state’s coffers compounded by the fact that it only adds to the chronic congestion on the roads. The existing duty-free vehicle permits given to MPs and those in the state medical and judicial fields have been totally abused. All that happens is that the permit holder flogs the piece of paper to a usually well-off businessman or car sales outlet and banks the balance. The car itself does not go to the original recipient in many cases and it is a classic example of the Government encouraging corruption. Senior public servants see how an MP makes a cool Rs. 20 million plus by selling his permit. That bad example is now being extended to senior public servants.

Successive Governments have used this duty-free vehicle permit as a short-cut; an escape route to the demands of senior public servants seeking better salaries to attract the ‘creme de la creme’ from the universities to the public service and prevent brain drain. That modus operandi is not Yahapalanaya and only breeds abuses and the art of cheating, setting the worst possible example at the highest level of Government. It is bad in principle and bad in practice.

NEC must get its priorities right

 The National Election Commission (NEC) went the extra mile to nudge the President to seek a determination from the Supreme Court whether Provincial Council elections can be held on the old electoral system without waiting for Parliamentary approval on the new system.

Why the NEC is so eager to bust up Rs. 4 billion on an election for what has become a moribund system of devolution is quite intriguing. The NEC might have better spent its time and energy focusing how it can implement reforms to ensure even freer and fairer elections than exists today can be implemented.

Take the latest (2018) report of the NEC. There’s a long, detailed account on the non-holding of the Provincial elections and the accusations faced by the NEC, but hardly a mention of the crucial issues on the conduct of elections in general. There’s only a passing reference to cooperating with the ineffective Bribery and Corruption Commission on laws relating to election propaganda limits etc., and that the NEC has submitted a draft to the Attorney General for perusal. This proposed law has a complicated measurement for how much a candidate or party can spend and relies merely on the accounts submitted to the NEC. Punishment is also limited to the office-bearers of the party – not the candidate. It prohibits foreign funding of parties and the like. However, given the overworked AG’s Department, it is unlikely that whatever law on this subject will see the light of day before the next set of elections.

The NEC report’s Vision and Mission statement says its goal is to ensure all candidates are treated equally, but the rest of the report is on voter registration; the abuse of the NIC by voters; training of staff; International Voters Day; Accounts and the like.

In April, we referred to the Indian Election Commission conducting the world’s biggest election and the pro-active role it was expected to play. The IEC had its failings, but overall came in for commendation. An MCC (Model Code of Conduct) was something the NEC here can adopt. Though only a set of guidelines, the IEC had the power, and executed that power to transfer a Chief Minister and Police officers for doing the bidding of politicians; had the Police search vehicles transporting bundles of cash and remanded persons who couldn’t explain the source of the funds.

The IEC’s writ extended to SMS voice-messaging and monitoring of social media, especially Facebook. We warned then, “with old tricks and new treats up the sleeve of contending parties, and undeclared funds raining down at election time, Sri Lanka’s proud history of elections will be tested to the core come its turn”.

Evidently, many of these laws are not in place, and the NEC will be punching above its weight in trying to impose controls. It would have been time better spent if it pursued these objectives than being obsessed in holding Provincial elections.



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