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… warns of move to bring public finance under President’s thumb

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Dissident SLPP MP Prof. Charitha Herath says that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has interfered with the functioning of parliamentary committees in violation of Standing Order No 111.

The former Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) warns of dire consequences of what he called the President’s high-handed action.

The unprecedented intervention made by the executive in the legislature should be examined against the backdrop of President Ranil Wickremesinghe continuing to hold the vital Finance portfolio, Prof. Herath said. “In other words, the most vital parliamentary responsibility is in the hands of a person who does not represent Parliament.”

Prof. Herath said so commenting on recent written instructions issued by Presidential Secretary, Saman Ekanayake, to Secretaries to the Ministries, who functioned as the Chief Accounting Officers. The action couldn’t be justified on the basis that Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and Secretary General of Parliament, Kushani Rohanadeera, have been informed of the issuance of instructions to Ministry Secretaries. These instructions pertained to three watchdog committees, COPE, COPA (Committee of Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee of Public Finance) and all Sectoral Oversight Committees.

Prof. Herath emphasised that the executive should not be allowed to interfere in parliamentary committees, under any circumstances.

The controversial declaration that the participation of Ministry Secretaries would be subject to the approval of relevant ministers and prior consultations between the Chairman of committees and the ministers regarding the subject matter before the actual proceedings could simply make the entire process ineffective, Herath, who is a one-time Media Ministry Secretary, told The Island.

Pointing out that Cabinet ministers exercised executive powers in Parliament, the academic said that Speaker Abeywardena in consultation with leaders of political parties should address this issue or face the consequences.

The Parliament definitely owed an explanation to the public in this regard, Prof. Herath said, adding if Parliament meekly accepted the presidential intervention, the committee system could collapse.

Prof. Herath represents Nidahasa Janatha Sabhama, a constituent of Uthara Lanka Sabhagaya. Alleging that the move was transparently meant to bring parliamentary committees under President Wickremesinghe’s thumb, Prof. Herath urged the executive, legislature and judiciary to take advantage of the proceedings therein to restore public confidence in public finance.

Prof. Herath said that he was quite astonished that the executive ordered that participation of the Finance Ministry officials in committee proceedings should be subjected to the Finance Secretary’s approval. The lawmaker found fault with both print and electronic media for their reportage. In the absence of proper understanding of the latest development, the media focused on the Secretary to the President issuing instructions to Ministry Secretaries, the MP said. Instead, the media should have examined far reaching consequences of such a directive at a time the country was experiencing a deepening economic-political-social crisis.

Prof. Herath said that he had raised the issue of executive intervention when he participated in the debate on Carriage by Air (Amendment) Bill – Second Reading (Hon. Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation) last Friday (07) along with several other contentious issues such as the urgent need to restructure SriLankan Airlines and the despicable move to private profit-making public enterprises.

Prof. Herath dealt with the intervention made by the Secretary to the President and the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate causes for financial bankruptcy. The executive intervention coincided with the setting up of a PSC, the ex-COPE head said. Declaring that he had absolutely no issue with any of the members picked for the PSC, Prof. Herath questioned the eligibility of some of the members.

The Speaker last Thursday (06) announced the following MPs to the PSC. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi SLPP), D.V. Chanaka (SLPP), Vijitha Herath (JVP), Mahindananda Aluthgamage (SLPP), Eran Wickremaratne (SJB), Ashok Abeyseinghe (SJB), Jayantha Kategoda (SLPP), Harshana Rajakaruna (SJB), Pradeep Udugoda (SLPP), Sanjeewa Edirimanna (SLPP), Nalaka Bandara Kottegoda (SLPP), Shanniyakan Rasamanikkam (TNA) and Prof. Ranjith Bnadara (SLL).

Prof. Herath questioned the failure on the part of the party leaders to choose him for the PSC. Underscoring the importance of establishing the circumstances leading to the declaration of bankruptcy in April 2022, the MP urged the PSC to take into consideration the Special Audit Report on financial management and public debt control in Sri Lanka 2018-2022.

Prof. Herath emphasized that about a week before the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit office, the COPE under his chairmanship decided to have special committee meetings on the entire gamut of issues over a period of four days beginning July 19, 2022. But in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster, the situation changed overnight and Ranil Wickremesinghe elected by the SLPP as President to complete the remainder of his predecessor’s five-year term prorogued Parliament to cause the automatic dissolution of all committees, MP Herath said.

When COPE was reconvened Prof. Herath was not at least accommodated in the watchdog committee.

Prof. Herath stressed that the COPE just over a year ago called for the establishment of a Special PSC to investigate the economic fallout. But the PSC set up by Speaker Abeywardena didn’t meet expectations of those who expected a genuine effort to identify shortcomings, blunders and negligence at every level, lawmaker Herath said.

During last Friday’s debate, MP Herath said that the proposed investigation should study the yahapalana period (2015-2019) and the period thereafter. The leasing of Hambantota port for a period of 99-years to China, disruption of Colombo Port City project, Treasury bond scams in 2015 and 2016 and procurement ISBs worth over USD 12 bn during the Yahapalana administration contributed and influenced the overall crisis, the MP said.

Prof. Herath said that those at the helm of political leadership still pursued neo-liberal policies though they failed to achieve success. The academic strongly advised the country should at least now adopt what he called social democratic economic policy.

Commenting on the deepening crisis at Sri Lankan Airlines, Prof. Herath said that the government and Opposition without further delay should sink their differences on this issue.

Asserting bankrupt Sri Lanka couldn’t afford to maintain an airline of its own, Prof. Herath said that they should explore ways and means of restructuring the airline. Profit making ground handling, catering and fuel supplies, too, should be part of that restructuring deal as prospective buyers wouldn’t consider Sri Lanka’s offers unless profit making elements were part of the agreement, he said.

However, the government seemed much more interested in restructuring cash cows such as Sri Lanka Insurance, national gas supplier Litro and Litro Gas Terminal Lanka Pvt Ltd. The MP said that Lanka Hospitals earmarked for restructuring was doing well.

Prof. Herath also appealed that the government maintained a social security network to protect the needy and also continue with free medical and education regardless of difficulties.

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