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Let govt. MPs speak with one voice

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Friday 28th July, 2023

Only the naïve would have expected Wednesday’s all-party conference (APC) to be successful. Most politicians who attended it did so not out of any desire to help it achieve its goal of bringing about a consensus among all stakeholders on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. They were present there because they did not want to be blamed for trying to scuttle the event. Only the JVP turned down President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s invitation to the APC, but it too did not act out of principle. Its history is replete with U-turns. It plunged the country into a bloodbath in an abortive bid to torpedo the 13th Amendment in the late 1980s, but has since had no qualms about having representation in the Provincial Councils (PCs).

On Wednesday, President Wickremesinghe sought to give the party leaders present at the APC a binary choice of sorts—either the Provincial Council (PC) system had to be made to work properly or scrapped, he said. He apparently subscribes to the view that the PCs have failed to live up to the people’s expectations because the 13th Amendment is not fully implemented. It is being argued in some quarters that if the PCs are given control over the police, land, etc., in the provinces, hey presto, ethnic issues will go away and the country will be able to achieve its development goals in next to no time. But the PC system has come to be widely considered a white elephant because the country cannot afford it and the second tire of government is a massive drain on the state coffers. More importantly, none of the proponents of devolution have utilised the already devolved powers to make the province-based development model work and serve the interests of the public so as to present a strong case for enhancing the powers of the PCs.

The Finance Commission has revealed in a report submitted to Parliament that more than 75% of public money allocated to the PCs is spent on salaries, wages, overtime, holiday payments, etc. When all nine PCs are fully functional, we have 10 Education Ministers including the one in charge of the line ministry. About 9,750 out of 10,146 state-run schools are provincial ones, and the others numbering 396 are national schools. The country also maintains a similar number of Health Ministers. But the public has gained nothing in return; the two sectors are perennially in crisis.

The PCs have been under Governors for years, and there have been no protests as much against the postponement of the PC elections. Even the TNA helped the UNP-led Yahapalana government put off the PC polls indefinitely by amending the PC Elections Act, in 2017. The public has not given a tinker’s cuss about the fact that the PCs have been without elected representatives all these years. So, it will be prudent for the proponents of devolution to press for the PC polls lest the people should lose interest in the PC system completely with the passage of time.

Before seeking the Opposition’s cooperation to make the PC system work efficiently, shouldn’t President Wickremesinghe reach a consensus with the SLPP, which props him up, on the ongoing efforts to implement the 13th Amendment fully. The government MPs have to speak with one voice on the issue. Some of its big guns have struck discordant notes. Let the SLPP parliamentary group be urged to discuss the proposed full implementation of the 13th Amendment at its next meeting and make its position thereon known to the public. If it continues to be riven by disagreements over the subject, it might as well abandon its efforts to bring about a cross-party consensus. A house divided against itself cannot expect others to take its calls for unity seriously.

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