By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Opposition yesterday (08) lambasted Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena for what it called a move to disrupt the Committee on Public Finance (CoPF) ahead of the vote on a Bill titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka.’
Top spokespersons for the Nidahas Janatha Sabhawa (NJS) Prof. G.L. Peiris, MP, and the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Dr. Harsha de Silva frowned on the indefinite postponement of the appointment of the Chairman of the watchdog committee.
Addressing the media, at the NJS Office, at Nawala, Prof. Peiris flayed the government over the proposal to set up a so-called ‘Independent Budget Office’ for greater scrutiny on public finance, whereas the time-tested apparatus was disrupted. The former External Affairs Minister, and retired top law academic, alleged that the government was hell-bent on disrupting the CoPF. The Opposition raised the issue as knowledgeable people questioned the need for such a set manned by two persons expected to be given wide powers.
The rebel SLPP National List MP said that the denial of the Chairmanship of the CoPF to the Opposition was a serious violation of the Standing Orders of Parliament. The former Minister emphasized that the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government wanted to cripple the vital all-party body.
Dr. de Silva declared that the SLPP Speaker postponed the scheduled selection committee meeting to appoint the Chairman of CoPF in spite of it being the only watchdog committee chaired by the Opposition. Responding to The Island queries, the economist said that though the second reading of the Bill, titled ‘Central Bank of Sri Lanka,’ was to take place, CoPF couldn’t peruse it yet, the one-time UNP State Minister said.
The SJB lawmaker warned that yet another pro-tem Chairman would be appointed today (09) to ensure approval for the relevant Bill, ahead of the second reading and vote on May 11.
Alleging that this was an extremely serious violation of Standing Orders, particularly against the backdrop of the sensitive nature of the Bill concerned and economic ruination, Dr. de Silva emphasized that CoPF was the only committee that looks into the future whereas the Committee on Public Accounts (CoPA) and Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) examine past audits.
Both Prof. Peiris and Dr. de Silva alleged that the government disrupted the CoPF at the very beginning of the latest session. Dr. de Silva represented the SJB in the third session of the 9th Parliament though the election of new Chairman following the prorogation with effect from January 27, 2023.
Trouble erupted when the SLPP nominated SJB lawmaker Mayantha Dissanayake as Chairman of CoPF in the fourth week of February, 2023, in spite of the Opposition re-nominating Dr. de Silva. Two days later, National List MP Dissanayake resigned. However, the ruling party nominated the sole UNP National List MP in Parliament, Vajira Abeywardena, as the Acting Chairman, regardless of the Opposition demand that de Silva received the CoPF leadership.
Prof. Peiris said that since then the government prevented the finalization of the appointment though the administration assured the International Monetary Fund (IMF) tangible measures would be taken against waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement.
Dr. de Silva alleged that Speaker Abeywardena was pursuing a political agenda at the expense of his duty to ensure the responsibility on the part of Parliament regarding public finance.
Prof. Peiris said that the entire gamut of issues would be taken up with the IMF delegation, expected to visit Colombo in about two weeks. The ex-Minister insisted that the disruption of CoPF couldn’t be justified, under any circumstances.
At the onset of the briefing, Prof. Peiris said that the government was yet to address the issues at hand with an open mind. Instead, the government sought to muddy the waters by calling a vote on the IMF bailout package, the former minister said, declaring that there was no requirement for a vote.
Sri Lanka obtained IMF bailout packages on 16 previous occasions. Prof. Peiris stressed that in spite of Parliament approving the agreement with the IMF (120 voting for and 25 against), a future government would definitely seek to renegotiate it. The ex-minister repeated concerns over the restructuring of domestic debt and its impact on the EPF (Employees’ Provident Fund). According to him, the Opposition was contemplating the possibility of taking legal action to prevent the government from laying its hands on EPF funds.