‘We must attract qualified people to Parliament’ | Sunday Observer

‘We must attract qualified people to Parliament’

Deputy Minister, Public Enterprise Development, Eran Wickramaratne said, there is a lot of exaggeration about the income of Members of Parliament. The question we should ask ourselves is, do we pay sufficiently to attract qualified, educated and experienced people to Parliament. In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the Deputy Minister said, the country will change not only by its policies, but, its future is dependent on the quality of the individuals representing the people in Parliament. We must change the system to attract the right people to come to Parliament, he says.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: The last budget was subjected to many changes and amendments. Do you think the same will happen with this budget as well?

A: There is a difference between budget 2017 and the last budget. The former was unusual, in the sense, there were subsequent amendments right up to October. Ours is a National Unity Government. This is the first time in Sri Lankan politics that two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP have got together. Obviously, from the lessons we have experienced, the process of budget preparation this time has been greatly smoothened. So we don’t expect amendments as before. Therefore, we shouldn’t compare this budget with the last.

Q: There had been agreement on most of the budget proposals by the UNP and SLFP members in the Government. Do you think this consensus will prevail over the next four years as well?

A: We should remember the two parties campaigned on two different manifestos and then came together. Therefore, there is a necessity for consensus building to happen continuously. We need to recognise that there are differences, which are not necessarily a bad thing. What is important is, there is agreement on vital and critical issues between the two parties. The President and the Prime Minister are committed to that objective and we will work towards that objective.

In the past, there was a debate in Parliament about peace and reconciliation. There are several tracks to create reconciliation. One is the political track. The Sinhala Only Act was brought in 1956 and there was a lot of dissension in 1957. In 1958, then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the leader of the Federal Party S.J.V. Chelvanayagam came to an agreement to create Regional Councils and devolve power to them. There was also an agreement that the judiciary will function and record in the Tamil language in the North and the East. But, in 1958, they had to abrogate their understanding due to pressure. In 1965, then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake came to an agreement with Chelvanayagam, again. In that, there were administrative arrangements that had been agreed upon, but they had to be abandoned due to opposition, once again. There was a third attempt from 1995 to year 2000 under the leadership of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to evolve a new constitution which she presented to Parliament in 2000. Unfortunately, there was a lot of opposition to it and they couldn’t go through with it, even though there was a long constitutional building process.

I serve in the Parliamentary Sub Committee on Finance, in the process of the making of a new constitution. In that committee, all Government and Opposition members agree that there should be more extensive financial devolution to Provincial Councils. Thirty years after establishing the Provincial Councils, we have discussed about devolving financial powers further. So now, the right thing is happening in the right direction. It is a good reason why the two political parties have to work together. In this context, there is a fresh attempt to evolve a new constitution. This is the first time that every political party is evolved in this process and it is also the first time that the major Tamil political party is in the constitution making process.

Q: There has been a lot of opposition to the Rs.25,000 traffic fine. Do you think there would be some relief on the matter before the third reading of the budget is passed ?

A: I don’t think one tax could be looked at differently from another. The Government uses various direct and indirect methods of collecting taxes. The question is, how it would be used. It’s nothing new. Road offences have always entailed fines, which is part of Government revenue. The issue that has arisen is the increase. The debate is not about the fine, but the amount of the fine, which could be debated in different ways. Obviously, those likely to have to pay the fine wouldn’t want a big increase. On the other hand, a fine should have a deterrent effect, and depends on the magnitude of the offence committed.

In any society, drunken driving is considered as a serious offence, in which case the amount of the fine should be a deterrent. In my view, it is a serious offence. It is one’s personal choice to consume alcohol and put the road user at risk. Apart from the fine, in most countries, they would disqualify the driver. On the other hand, issues such as overtaking from the left has been debated. There is room for such discussion. Those driving without licences, is another serious offence. I don’t think, anybody should be allowed to drive without a licence because they could pose a threat to innocent people.

Q: At a time when people are facing hardships, the Government presented a supplementary estimate to Parliament to purchase 28 cars at a cost of Rs.791 million for 27 Ministers, Deputy Ministers, State Ministers and the Opposition Leader. Is it reasonable to spend such a large sum of money to purchase vehicles?

A: I don’t agree with the present system of allocating vehicles to Ministries. The Government should have a policy as that in a company where there are different vehicles for different levels of responsibilities. Similarly, we should decide on the type of vehicle for Ministers and Deputy Ministers according to the responsibilities. All vehicles should be centrally purchased. The life of the vehicle could be per-determined as five years, or so. When the five years is up, the vehicle is replaced. It does not depend on the particular individual, but the policy and system that is in place. When these policies are not made public, it creates a wrong impression in the minds of the public. A lot more needs to be done to strengthen Parliament. To ensure and strengthen the democratic society, strengthening the MPs is a critical part. I appeal to the public, not to be persuaded by sensational news and headlines, but verify the facts and decide what kind of society and what kind of a person they want to represent them in Parliament.

I was an MP in the last Parliament and received a salary of Rs. 54,000 and, Rs.30,000 petrol allowance, Rs.10,000 telephone allowance and Rs. 1,000 entertainment allowance. The total roughly is about Rs.100,000 per month. It was reported that some MPs who needed cash more than a new car, traded their permits and received between Rs. 8 to 12 million for their permits. If we take the average to be about Rs.10 million on the permit in the last Parliament and divide it by 60 months (five years), it is Rs.166,000 per month. If you add Rs.166,000 to Rs. 54,000 the salary comes to Rs. 220,000. Then you get Rs.220,000 without a vehicle. If you lease a mid size new car, probably you have to pay a monthly lease rental of Rs.100,000. It is less than a middle manager would get in a private sector firm.

Q: There had been controversy over using EPF funds for various investments. What is the Government’s decision with regard to this?

A: Since 2009, there has been controversy on how the EPF has been used. Firstly, the EPF doesn’t belong to the Government, it belongs to the workers of the country. Therefore, the workers want their returns maximised so that when they retire they could live off their provident fund. But, the management of the EPF was given to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 1958. The Central Bank also happens to be the agent of the Government of Sri Lanka. Therefore, the agent borrows on behalf of the Government. The Government has been constantly borrowing. The agent acting on behalf of the Government wants to obtain the funds at the lowest possible interest rate. At the same time, the same agent is supposed to maxmise the returns for the workers in the country. These two objectives are conflicting. I have advocated for some time that the EPF must be managed by an independent authority. There have been allegations that EPF funds have been used in the Stock Market at very low returns. Some of the decisions were not professional or financially viable. Therefore, there should be an investigation. There is enough evidence for an investigation. Certainly, I will bring this matter at the Committee on Public Accounts, calling for an investigation on the EPF from 2009 to 2015.

Q: Are there any incentives in the budget to encourage local and foreign investments?

A: I believe we have often looked at investments as something that should receive physical and tax incentives. This is the old model which comes from the 1970s. Any investor would welcome tax breaks. However, there are more fundamental things to be done. One is the political stability and second, the investors value the supremacy of the law. I think in both areas, Sri Lanka has made tremendous progress since January 8, 2015. The investors have the confidence now that if they go to courts, they will get a fair hearing.Then there is a question about the consistency of the Government’s policy which investors look at. I admit that the Government has fallen short of investor expectations. But we are on the right track and have been correcting some of the contradictions made earlier. Now, it is a matter of time before investments start to flow. The discussions we are engaged in are most encouraging. We have had discussions with Chinese companies, and are looking at creating a huge Free Trade Zone in Hambantota which will expand to the whole of the South. It will bring hundreds of companies and create 100,000 jogs. So the people of Hambantota would get a new opportunity.