National economy, people’s wellbeing, tops Govt’s plans | Sunday Observer

National economy, people’s wellbeing, tops Govt’s plans

There was palpable tension at the Unity government´s cabinet meeting last week as Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera and Petroleum Resources Development Minister Arjuna Ranatunga clashed over the continuing woes of Sri Lanka Cricket. President Sirisena moved in to put the intense argument between the two to rest.

Continuing from weeks of bickering within the cabinet and between constituent members of the government in parliament, we commented last week how the hierarchy of the unity government reacted swiftly to project a sense of urgency in the need to close ranks and show a united façade to the people and the country.

We said last Sunday, “The first salvo in this renewed sense of urgency was fired during the media briefing of the cabinet decisions on Wednesday. It came in the form of a statement of renewed commitment for the national government from the two spokespersons, representing the UNP and the UPFA, who both stated that they were committed to continuing with the national government for its full term.

We also quoted President Maithripala Sirisena, “When the two parties agreed to form a unity government in 2015, all approved of it. So, why criticize it now? What would have been the outcome if both parties did not agree to this?”

Hence, when President Sirisena was to reaffirm his commitment to carrying the government ahead, regardless of who defects from the government, while addressing heads of media institutions at the President’s House in Colombo on the morning of Wednesday, August 30, that did not come as a surprise.

In a significant statement, the President also expressed his regret over the delay in the National Audit Bill, adding that it would be passed expeditiously.

The President´s comments followed representations made by the civil society and a continuing agitation by the Auditor General´s Department itself for a quick resolution of the National Audit Bill in the past few weeks.

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) urged the government to bring the National Audit Bill (NAB) to parliament and table it in its present form without doing away with the surcharging powers of the Auditor General under the bill, two weeks ago.

Public Trust

TISL´s Executive Director Asoka Obeysekare was reported to have said that it was important to implement the NAB as “the public trust in public finances was at an incredible low.” Adjustments to the NAB could be made at the committee stage of Parliament using standing order 57 and therefore the Bill did not need to go backwards, Obeysekare stressed.

The National Audit Bill is one of the last outstanding pieces of legislation the unity government promised to implement in their respective election manifestoes. The Inland Revenue Bill, another outstanding piece of legislation will be presented to parliament this week after it was postponed from the previous session of parliament due to lack of time. The next major legislation will be the 20th Amendment to the constitution that will allow elections to all local government bodies to be held on the same day and then the next major legislative hurdle is expected to be the new constitution.

On 15th June 2013, then Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe wrote an extensive critique of the constitutional making process to the Island Newspaper (Not of the Lake House Group) titled “Taking back Sovereignty Lost.” Wickremesinghe highlighted three options that his party was pursuing in giving back sovereignty to the people and changing the executive presidency. “However, it is the second of the three options given that details out the more prominent thinking of my party´s constitutional think-tanks, with the substitution of a directly elected Head of State, who will only head a Council of State (which will consist of the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, the leaders of the political parties represented in Parliament and the Chief Ministers of the Provinces), and will act on the advice of the Council of State. This also reflects the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission on both devolution and power sharing at the apex bodies, where the Commission underlined the need for courage and the political will on the part of all political parties to give up adversarial politics and have consensual decision-making on national political issues,” Wickremesinghe wrote.

“The Council of State shall decide on all political directions and national priorities. The Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister and the Provincial Boards of Ministers shall be responsible for implementation of the decisions of the Council of State.

“There shall also be a Speaker’s Councils consisting of the Speaker, the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition and representatives of all political parties represented in Parliament. The Speaker shall be the Chairman.

“On recommendations of the Council of State and the Speaker’s Council, the Head of the State shall appoint members to Independent Commissions, Justices to the Constitutional Court and Superior Courts. The Head of State with the approval of the Speaker’s Council shall appoint heads of State Institutions,” Wickremesinghe wrote.

Incomplete recommendations

Most of these recommendations, other than for the change of the Executive to Council of State, were instituted through the 19th Amendment. In his article, Wickremesinghe was to note that he is “profoundly aware that these recommendations are incomplete. Nowhere in these do we speak of the actual entitlements of each of these separate bodies. These, in my belief, come as a set of statutes that need careful drafting by constitutional experts - and by the citizenry of Sri Lanka, for they pay for these entitlements. And thus, we leave the entitlements open for suggestions - we are only providing the parameters.” In a footnote, Wickremesinghe pointed out that the “Soulbury Constitution was amended eight times by successive governments, the last amendment by the UF government of Madame Bandaranaike in 1971 to abolish the Senate; the 1972 Constitution was amended twice, last by the UNP government of Prime Minister J.R. Jayewardene to establish the Executive Presidency in 1977; and 1978 Constitution amended 17 times by successive UNP governments and once by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to remove presidential time limits and to weaken the 17th Amendment.”

The 19th Amendment and the proposed 20th Amendment serve to strengthen the 1978 constitution. Some of the other important legislations such as the Audit Bill, the Right to Information Act, the Inland Revenue Bill and the amendments to local elections laws have or will deliver the promise that Wickremesinghe made in June 2013 that he will “bring in another timely and pertinent change to ensure our democratic frameworks will continue to be robustly protected.” As much as the government has up to now focused on laying this groundwork, the laws and the legislation to ensure that democracy will continue in the country and people´s sovereignty will reign supreme, time has also come to ensure that economic development, health and wellbeing of the people are also developed in parallel.

Economic policies

Tomorrow, President Sirisena is to make a series of announcements covering the government´s economic plans for the next three years. In earlier occasions, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had made these announcements in parliament. However, the government´s new push will see the President taking that responsibility. Along with the announcements that are expected to cover a plethora of areas, including energy, transport, agriculture, and environment, President Sirisena will also launch a new National Economic Council, later this week, which is expected to spearhead strategy, directions and decisions regarding economic activity.

State Minister Dr Harsha de Silva was closely involved in drafting the economic policies the President will announce tomorrow. He was to tell the Sunday Observer yesterday that the policy spells out the constraints and “it then explains what we need to do to remove those constraints including reforms needed in the land market, labour market and capital market.”

“This economy must be converted to a tradable heavy economy with the main focus on exports. The theme is to create knowledge based highly competitive social market economy at the hub of the Indian Ocean. How do we get there? If its knowledge based human resources is crucial and where money needs to be invested, it must be looked at,” the State Minister said.

According to Dr de Silva, the policy is a team effort.

“Team effort members consisted of professionals and experts from the Central Bank, Treasury, IPS, Advisors. We have identified coordination as an important factor and will include institutional coordination to reduce bureaucratic red tape and delays. We are looking at those as well. How do we make Sri Lanka go up the ladder in doing business is the focus. It’s a comprehensive plan,” the Minister said. The hub of the Indian Ocean concept was also one of the main themes discussed at the Indian Ocean Conference 2017 (IOC 2017),organised by India Foundation, a think-tank closely allied with India´s Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) over the weekend at the main conference theatre of the Temple Trees.

The conference, whose main organiser was BJP´s National General Secretary Ram Madhav, saw some familiar names for long-time India watchers appearing in the Speaker’s List. These included, Hardeep Singh Puri, one-time deputy to High Commissioner J.N. Dixit during the height of tension between Sri Lanka and India prior to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) being deployed in the North and the East in 1987 and G. Parthasarathy, a south block (India´s External Affairs Ministry) veteran who was closely involved in the negotiations between successive Sri Lankan governments, India and the LTTE.

Madhav, considered Prime Minister Modi´s chief trouble-shooter was to tell journalists covering the conference that the nations in the Indian Ocean region have raised their concerns over the issue of “freedom of navigation” in the China Sea.

“Where China claimed to be not against freedom of navigation, other nations raised their concerns on the issue of freedom of navigation in China Sea,” Ram Madhav told ANI, on the sidelines of the conference. “Freedom of Navigation” and “over flights” was of deep concern to participants of the conference, including Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who referred to the subject during his keynote address. However, he was referring not to the China Sea, but to the Indian Ocean. The two-day conference, attended by a plethora of regional leaders, including India´s Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, had one notable absentee nation – Pakistan.

Papers were presented on the following themes.

PEACE

• Freedom of Navigation and over flights

• Collective Counter Terrorism Efforts

• Anti Piracy Cooperation

PROGRESS

• Strengthening Bilateral and Multilateral Institutional Networks

• Strengthening Domestic Political Institutions and Statecraft

• Educational and Cultural Developments (Individual and Collective Efforts)

• Creating a Common Parliament for the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region on the lines of the European Parliament

PROSPERITY

• Creating multilateral forums for Trade, Commerce and Economic Development

• Strengthening existing Institutions

• Blue Waters Economies

• Ecological and Environmental Challenges

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe referred to regional security concerns in his speech. “The waters of the Indian Ocean are also home to continually evolving strategic developments, including the rise of regional powers with nuclear capabilities. Conflicts in the Gulf, unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan, rise of violent extremism, growing incidents of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa loom over our region. Given the rising conflicts in the Middle East and West Asia, world’s major powers have deployed substantial military forces in that part of the Indian Ocean Region,”Wickremesinghe said.

“In our view, the vital Sea Lanes of Communication in the Indian Ocean that fuels the global economy needs to be open for all and must be used for mutual benefit in a sustainable manner. It is essential to maintain peace and stability in the Indian Ocean Region, which ensures the right of all states to the freedom of navigation and over flight. That unhindered lawful maritime commerce is conducted in keeping with current international laws and regulations. In terms of the Maritime build up taking place in the Indian Ocean, we see major players such as India, Australia, USA, China, and Japan envisaging various projects ranging from ocean excavation to placing remote sensors for ocean research. The latter three are increasing their forward naval presence. Naval power will play a greater role in the regional maritime affairs. This will in turn lead to Naval power competitions, with plans for sea control as well as sea denials,”he said.

Rising conflicts

“There are 10 critical choke points in the Indian Ocean that remain vulnerable to air and maritime encounters and possible terrorist attacks by non-state actors. Given the rising conflicts in the Middle East and West Asia, world’s major powers have deployed substantial military forces in the Indian Ocean Region. This trend will continue for some more time until the world community gets together and resolve the causes for these conflicts.

“Sri Lanka intends working with all our partners in creating a shared vision for economic and security engagement. We remain convinced that a code of conduct that ensures the freedom of navigation in our ocean will be an essential component of this vision. In this regard, as I mentioned earlier Sri Lanka will soon commence exploratory discussions on convening a meeting to deliberate on a stable legal order on freedom of navigation and over flight in the Indian Ocean.

“We believe that maintaining the Freedom of Navigation is of paramount importance for Sri Lanka to become the Hub in the Indian Ocean. It is only then that we can reap the full benefits of our strategic location as well as the availability of ports on all coasts and two international airports with good land connectivity”, Wickremesinghe emphasised.

It is the objective of the unity government to see that these proposals being translated into realism so that Sri Lanka could play a major role while reaping benefits as an economic hub in the region.

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