The Colombo Port City (CPC) Economic Commission Bill, one that will surely have profound implications for both Sri Lanka and the entire region for decades to come, was adopted on Thursday after a controversial two-day debate in Parliament. In the end, the Bill was passed comfortably, with 149 votes in favour and just 58 against [...]


Both sides of House came out all guns blazing; in the end, it was smooth sailing for Port City Bill


The Colombo Port City (CPC) Economic Commission Bill, one that will surely have profound implications for both Sri Lanka and the entire region for decades to come, was adopted on Thursday after a controversial two-day debate in Parliament.

In the end, the Bill was passed comfortably, with 149 votes in favour and just 58 against at the third reading – a majority of 91. The second reading was passed with 148 votes in favour and 59 against. Three separate votes were also held for amendments proposed by Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Dr Harsha De Silva to clauses 9, 23 and 73 of the Bill, but the Government used its numbers to reject all three of the SJB’s amendments. The Opposition also registered its protest against many other clauses of the Bill which were approved without a division.

SJB members protesting at the Parliament roundabout

The debate saw plenty of heated exchanges between the Government and the Opposition, with the SJB and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) even resorting to public protests near the Parliament roundabout.

On Tuesday, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena read out the Supreme Court’s (SC) determination regarding Fundamental Rights petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Bill, where it was revealed that the SC had found certain clauses of the Bill to be inconsistent with the Constitution. The SC had noted that some clauses needed both a ⅔ Parliamentary special majority and a referendum to be adopted. However, the Court had noted that the inconsistencies would cease if the amendments it proposed were included.

Opposition parties had repeatedly called for a postponement of the debate on account of the ongoing third wave of COVID-19. On Tuesday, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella once more protested the decision to have the debate in such a situation, likening the Government’s haste to push through the Bill to Emperor Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned.

Opening the debate for the Government on Wednesday, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that the Government would include all amendments proposed by the SC to the Bill during the third reading.

Economists have forecast that Sri Lanka could attract investments amounting to USD 15 billion for CPC within the next five years, the PM said. About 200, 000 new jobs and livelihoods will also be created in those first five years due to construction work on the Port City. Economists have also forecast that the first five years will also see the creation of about 83, 000 permanent job opportunities at the CPC, Mr Rajapaksa added.

Given the level of competition among countries to attract foreign investment, a country must ensure that it provides potential investors with high quality incentives, facilities and services, he pointed out.

“Our Government has proposed a single window facilitation process for foreign investors who invest in Port City, enabling us to provide all facilities and services they require for them to invest in this project smoothly,” he explained. To do that, the CPC must be efficiently managed by a competent commission that will allow new investors to invest freely by minimising undue obstructions that have often frustrated foreign investors, he remarked.

The SJB was not opposed to CPC, but the Government did not provide enough democratic space to question the contents of this Bill, Colombo District MP Dr Harsha De Silva pointed out. The Government’s conduct meant that there was only one day available for citizens to go to court against the Bill, while the Speaker had still not appointed Parliamentary Oversight Committees to which the Bill could have been referred to. What was worse, the Government did not submit the Bill to Parliament’s Committee on Public Finance, which was functional, he charged.

He questioned why the President has been given sole authority to appoint members of the CPC Economic Commission under the Bill.

“We don’t know who will become President after 20, 40 or 50 years. Why are we giving authority of appointing Commission members to people who we don’t know? Don’t give one person the authority to appoint members to the Commission. Give that power to Parliament. There is no reason why you should not do that,” Dr De Silva told the Government.

The Government needed to provide more opportunities for Foreign Direct Investment, State Minister of Money & Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal stressed. “We need a new burst of at least USD 3 billion to come into the country on an annual basis in order to ensure that we maintain growth rates of at least 6% in our country. We have identified certain key projects as being ones that will take the country forward. The Port City is one of them. It has tremendous potential and we have to ensure that it is one of the drivers of the development activities in our country.”

He added that the Government has already agreed that the Commission, which would consist of five to seven persons, would have Sri Lankans in the majority, with the Chairman also being a Sri Lankan. The CPC Economic Commission would be the single window that would provide all the services and guidance to potential investors. It will be able to liaise with all relevant institutions to assist investors, he told the House.

The Government, which came to power by selling ‘patriotism’ is now trying to deprive the country of its freedom through Port City, SJB National List MP Eran Wickramaratne charged. “We have suspicions whether this Government is trying to play political football with China, India and America while staking our freedom.”

Mr Wickramaratne scoffed at the Government’s ‘billboard patriotism’ and questioned its MPs whether their conscience allows them to vote for a Bill that violates the country’s sovereignty.

Charges levelled by the Opposition that the Bill would exempt the CPC from coming under Parliament oversight were preposterous, Leader of the House and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena stated. “Regulations that are made by the CPC Economic Commission will be submitted to Parliament for approval. It is also completely false to say that the Auditor General won’t have powers to oversea their activities. The Auditor General will be able to audit them and report the findings to Parliament.”

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa described the Bill as a “national tragedy”. He questioned whether the people of the country, who are being battered by the pandemic on all sides, gained any benefit by the rushed debate on the Bill. “This Government is trying to pass the Port City Bill that will betray the country while plunging the country into the abyss of this deadly pandemic,” he asserted.

“The Government may now claim that it will accept and incorporate the amendments suggested by the SC, but the original draft Bill that it presented contains the true vision of what the Government wants for this country. That vision is one that blatantly violates the Constitution,” Mr Premadasa further said.

The country had to provide tax breaks to attract investors and this was the case for Port City, but the power to decide when to give tax breaks and under what conditions will continue to be vested with Parliament, Education Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris insisted. “Regulations regarding tax breaks for Port City must be tabled before Parliament and approved. If those regulations get rejected, the tax breaks won’t be provided.”

Seven key Acts that are important to the country’s financial sector will not apply to Port City under the Government’s Bill, National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said. The Bill also gives the CPC Commission powers to draft regulations that would make it exempt from a further 14 Acts that apply elsewhere in the country, he claimed. “This will create a section of society that will not come under laws passed by this Parliament.

He also alleged that contrary to the Government’s assertions, Parliament’s Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) will not be able to summon officials of the CPC Economic Commission before it. This is despite state funds being used for the building of Port City and Parliament being entrusted with the control of public finances under the Constitution.

One has to be practical when speaking of investment, Justice Minister Ali Sabry noted. “Foreign investment is not foreign aid. If investors didn’t invest USD 1.5 billion, there would still only be a section of Indian Ocean where Port City is situated today. If investors are willing to invest a further USD 15 billion into Port City now, they too would expect a gradual return on their investments. That is how special economic zones are run everywhere in the world.”

He claimed that the Opposition’s criticism of the Bill was motivated purely by jealousy. “The Supreme Court has asserted in its ruling that the CPC is a property of Sri Lanka and comes under the Colombo district. It will be governed completely by Sri Lankan Law. The Criminal Law and Civil Law there will be Sri Lankan Law. Even arbitration concerning disputes will be done in Sri Lanka if parties agree. There are no other exceptions to this,” he asserted.

Once the amendments that were passed by Parliament are incorporated into the Bill by the Legal Draftsman, it will be signed by the Speaker, thus making it into law. Parliament will reconvene on June 8.

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