by Saman Indrajith
A privilege matter raised by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament last week relating to the government’s agreement with US-based New Fortress Energy (NFE) places the entire deal at risk, parliamentary sources said.
Raising a privilege issue, Wickremesinghe claimed that the framework agreement between the Government and New Fortress Energy Sri Lanka Power Holdings LCC had been entered into in violation of the powers, privileges and immunity of Parliament. He called on the Government to make a full disclosure to the House.
The UNP leader identified clauses in the agreement breaching the powers and privileges of Parliament. Among these, Clause 8 on ‘Confidentiality and Announcement’, states that for five years, either party shall not without the prior written consent of the other parties disclose to any person any information.
The permitted disclosures are in regard to the order of a court, arbitration tribunal or an order or decree, rule and regulation of any ‘governmental authority’. “It makes reference to ‘governmental authority’, but Parliament is not a government authority. It is the legislature. Therefore, the minister cannot obtain information under this joint venture agreement for the purpose of disclosing it to Parliament,” Wickremesinghe said.
He requested Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to summon the Treasury Secretary, Directors of New Fortress Energy Sri Lanka Power Holdings LLC, and Attorney General to discuss the framework agreement on LNG supply.
Parliament sources said that once an MP presents a privilege matter in the House, the Speaker must announce within a couple of days that the matter would be referred to the Privileges Committee of Parliament. “The Speaker did not make such an announcement so far,” a committee member told the Sunday Island.
“After it is referred to the committee it is for us to decide whether the privilege of an MP has been breached and recommend action. Given the prevailing situation, it is most likely the committee would rule in favour of the UNP leader because even some government members in the Privileges Committee have voiced their opposition to this agreement,” he said.
The 12-member Ethics and Privileges Committee of Parliament comprises of six from the government and six from the opposition. They are Tharaka Balasuriya, M .U. M. Ali Sabry, Vijitha Berugoda, Kanaka Herath, Anuradha Jayaratne, Kabir Hashim, G. G. Ponnambalam, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, A. Aravindh Kumar, Velu Kumar, Kokila Gunawardene, Premitha Bandara Tennakoon, Shan Vijayalal de Silva, C.V. Wigneswaran, Gevindu Cumaratunga and Prof. Ranjith Bandara.
Parliament sources said that the Article 4 (c) of the constitution provides an exception to the rule that judicial power of the people should be exercised by Parliament through the courts. In matters relating to parliamentary privileges, parliament itself directly exercises a degree of judicial power.
The provisions of the Parliament (Powers and Privileges) Act No 21 of 1953 and its subsequent amendments, the Supreme Court as well as the Parliament has jurisdiction to hear cases relating to breaches of privileges.
The Ethics and Privileges Committee can examine all matters relating to privilege with reference to the facts of each case and decide whether there has been any breach, if so its nature and circumstances and make such recommendations as the committee may deem fit.
The committee is empowered to send for persons, documents and other records and do everything necessary for the fullest investigation of the matters referred to it, these sources said.
“The legitimacy of the agreement is being questioned and has already been challenged in the Supreme Court. There are some Privileges Committee members belonging to the government who consider that this agreement is against the national interest. It is most unlikely that the issue would be decided in favour of the government if Wickremesinghe’s privilege matter is referred to the committee by the Speaker.
“That will certainly upset the apple cart,” he said on Friday.