From emoluments to Devolution of power

The practice of enticing MPs by dishing out various favours, may it be Ministerial posts or other similar offers, is no strange phenomenon in our political culture. There is little argument that we need a change to this deep rooted political culture that invites political somersaults. Then again in the face of recent developments, there is little hope for such a change, despite how ugly and unreasonable this practice is.

With the three new appointments, Parliament was told last Thursday that the National Government now comprises 47 Cabinet Ministers, 20 Sate Ministers and 25 Deputy Ministers. This was stated by Chief Government Whip and Minister Gayantha Karunathilake in response to a demand by the Joint Opposition to reveal the total number of persons holding ministerial ranks.

About 26 Joint Opposition MPs led by MP Wimal Weerawansa caused an upheaval in Parliament over the appointment of three new Deputy and State Ministers. There had been a standing protest for about 15 minutes. At this point, Justice Minister Dr. Wijayadasa Rajapakshe was also standing to move a bill pertaining to his ministry. Replying to the concerns of the Joint Opposition MPs, he asked them in a lighter vein to count the number of MPs who had left their group and add that number to the initial number of ministers to find out the total number of ministers as at present.

As Minister Lakshman Kiriella observed among the standing lot, there were MPs who had talks with the government secretly to get ministerial posts. He invited them to join the bandwagon stating there is still enough room in the National Government. Notably, MP Chamal Rajapaksa was seen quietly seated throughout the protest.

As of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed in April last year, the number of Cabinet Ministers is limited to 30 while the total number of deputy and state ministers should not exceed 40. However, the same legislation allows increasing this number with the approval of Parliament in the event of a National Government being formed. The very first motion passed by this Parliament was to increase the number of Cabinet Ministers up to 48 with another 45 Deputy and State Ministers.

MPs emolument plans

04-1-1-570x321Be it as it may, it is now certain that our Parliamentarians are not ready to forego the bundle of new allowances proposed for them that easily, despite how burdensome it may be for our feeble economy and the public. In the face of rising costs of day-to-day affairs, they have decided to fight back for increased allowances which were once dropped due to growing public displeasure.

The topic crept into the Party Leaders’ Meeting once again last Tuesday garnering the support of many who were present. This time it was TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran who had insisted on increasing the allowances and facilities for MPs citing the various difficulties and expenses borne by MPs in outstation areas to travel Colombo to attend the sittings of Parliament and Constitutional Assembly. Interestingly, Minister Kiriella, Mano Ganeshan and Douglas Devananda had also aligned with that stand buttressing this argument.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had informed Party Leaders that the proposal to increase the emoluments of MPs could be reconsidered if agreed unanimously. Reportedly, it was MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena who had spoken in different lines reminding that there is a strong public opinion against this move at this hour. None of the JVP MPs had been present at this meeting.

Another interesting development in Parliament this week was the heated argument broke out over the security detail of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The reason for the argument was the news that a group of army personnel attached to the security detail of the former President had been withdrawn and replaced by police officers.

The issue was raised by MP Dinesh Gunawardena and was supported by his colleagues in the Joint Opposition. He called on the government to immediately abandon the decision to reduce the security of the former President, claiming it was a serious threat to the life of the former President.

Minister Kiriella, responding on behalf of the government, assured adequate security to former President Rajapaksa and went on to state that altogether 206 police and army officers had been deployed for his security as of that date. In rather a discordant note, the Minister said it was the Joint Opposition which put former President Rajapaksa’s life at stake by claiming that he was not given enough security and spreading fake news.

In a hard hitting remark Kiriella also recalled how the security personnel deployed for Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Chief Ministerial candidate for the North Central Province Major General Janaka Perera were suddenly removed during the period of the former government making them easy targets of the terrorists. “We never follow this way. We have no hidden agenda,” he remarked.

One-on-one meeting between PM and MR

There had also been an exclusive one-on-one meeting between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Rajapaksa at the Premier’s Office in Parliament in this backdrop. Even though there had been no clue as to what had been discussed in this closed door meeting, some say the security concerns and the on-going investigations could have been among the things discussed.

Meanwhile, the full day debate on the power crisis held on Thursday helped to shed light on the inside story of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). Joining in this debate, JVP MP and COPE Chairman Sunil Handunnetti stressed that a few companies which have links to the CEB have built up a monopoly and that it should be broken to save the CEB.

“The power crisis and the CEB crisis are intertwined. The power crisis is created by the CEB engineers themselves and then they ask the politicians to go for power cuts. The minister holding the portfolio then looks for alternatives knowing the ill-effects of power cuts. The engineers then come up with the proposal to purchase power from the private sector and those companies are owned by them. They propose the same option for every minister that comes to the seat. Ultimately a network of companies surrounding the CEB nourishes while the CEB suffers,” he commented.

He urged the government to investigate companies which have links with the CEB, especially the LTL Holdings. “What happens in the CEB is similar to a pyramid scam. There are organised corruption and organised crimes in the CEB,” he revealed.

In a different turn of events, National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wimal Weerawansa informed the House last Tuesday that a letter signed by all the five members of his Party representing Parliament was submitted to the Speaker, demanding recognition as an independent group. The letter had requested the NFF be granted the privileges of other political parties in the Opposition as its members intend to withdraw from the UPFA and act independently.

Weerawansa said he was looking forward to hear the response of the Speaker with regard to this letter. The Speaker declined a similar demand by the Joint Opposition MPs previously stating that those members were still a part of the UPFA. However, they managed to win most of their demands at the end of a strenuous fight, but without the official recognition for their group. Unlike in the previous case, this time MP Weerawansa has gained more ground for his demand as he claims to have pulled his party out of the UPFA.

Speaker Jayasuriya, acknowledging the receipt of the letter, was keen to know whether the MP had officially informed the UPFA of this decision. The Speaker observed it would make his task easier had the MP followed this formality.

Meanwhile, two government ministers are now confronted with No-Confidence Motions (NCMs) submitted by the Joint Opposition. The first NCM was against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and the Speaker had agreed to take up the debate in May. The second NCM carrying the signatures of 42 MPs was handed over to the Speaker last Tuesday against Western Development and Megapolis Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka. The motion states the confidence on the minister has been breached due to his alleged involvement in the accident in Rajagiriya where a youth was critically injured by a vehicle belonged to the minister. It further alleges the minister had abused his powers to suppress investigations.

CA convenes

Turning a new page in the country’s legislature, the Constitutional Assembly (CA) convened for the first time last Tuesday in the Parliament Chamber to start off with the historic duty of drafting a new Constitution for the country. The Constitutional Assembly functions as a Committee in Parliament and all 225 MPs are members of it.

The Assembly presided by Speaker Jayasuriya elected office-bearers on its first sitting including seven Deputy Chairmen to assist the Chair and a Steering Committee comprising 21 members. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was elected the Chairman of the Steering Committee. These appointments were agreed unanimously and it was a rare instance of unity among the country’s legislators. From now on the CA will lay its hands on making the country’s Supreme Law with the aim to adopt it before the end of 2017.

The CA is also looking forward to the report on the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms headed by Lal Wijenaike. It is expected to be submitted before April 30. The Premier said the CA would proceed to appoint Sub-Committees following the receipt of this report.

Introducing a new electoral system sans preferential votes, abolition of the Executive Presidency and proposing a durable solution to the national question through an acceptable power devolution mechanism for all remain the key objectives of Constitutional reforms. The promulgation of the new Constitution will be only after a referendum.