Judiciary signals bureaucracy, politicos | Sunday Observer

Judiciary signals bureaucracy, politicos

Last week’s conviction of two top government bureaucrats is a warning not just to the bureaucracy but also to the political class that sits above it and tells it what to do. This democratic republic has too often noted the nexus between corruption by public officials and the abuse of power by elected politicians deploying officialdom for corrupt purposes.

In a landmark first successful prosecution by the newly established Financial Crimes Investigation Department (FCID), the Colombo High Court last Thursday convicted a former Secretary to the President and a former Director-General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) in the famous Sil Redi Rs. 600 million misappropriations case. These two main accused, one the nation’s highest appointed public servant and the other, the head of a crucial public utilities and infrastructure regulatory body, were convicted for illegally channelling funds belonging to the TRC, holding them in an account in the name of the Secretary to the President and then illegally using these public funds for purposes other than for what they were officially intended.

The judgment and sentencing are a clear warning that not even the most powerful public officials are free of investigation and punishment for violation of the law and their duty as public servants. Such punishments are a necessary disciplining of public officialdom too often notorious for corrupt practices whether it is for their own direct gain or, for the benefit of other private interested groups, or, for the benefit of, or at the bidding of politicians.

Such disciplining will help strengthen the resolve of our public servants to stick to the straight and narrow (and tax-free) path rather than to resort to such acts that betray their high office and public trust while plundering the people’s resources. With such a firm judicial regime in place, public officials at all levels will think twice before either succumbing to their own greed or the caprices of their political bosses.

After all, public servants must be shown in practice that democracy ensures that they cannot get away with illegal activity all of the time. Even if they are ordered to break the law by their political bosses, they should now realize that those same politicians are subject to electoral will and may not remain in power to protect them.

The observations by the High Court bench in this connection are telling. The High Court has observed that these two officials had apparently squandered Rs. 600 million in tax-payer money to distribute free gifts in support of the candidacy of a particular aspirant to the office of the President of the Republic.

This conviction, then, is a clear signal to all politicians that their ability to either coerce or encourage bureaucrats to violate laws and regulations is circumscribed by this judicial action to stiffen the backbones of our public servants.

Taxing the President

The taxation of citizens, whether as corporates and other co-operative endeavours or, as individuals, is always a tough call given the bitter pill of giving away hard-earned income or long-held resources to an amorphous entity called ‘the State’ seemingly for the ‘common good’. Given the dismal record of management of public resources by our administrators and rulers, readers will be excused if they remain sceptical as to whether their resources will be, indeed, efficiently utilised for this common good.

The new tax law is, therefore observed with much suspicion by many sides and, public reassurance will only come in time - with practice and careful adjustments and flexibility in the implementation.

While most business circles will welcome much of the simplification of the tax structure covering economic activity, certainly, some sectors may have the right to argue for more flexible targeting if those sectors are deemed under-facilitated or critical for economic development.

People will certainly appreciate that elected officials, including the President of the Republic, are now included in the tax net.

Ultimately, the test of success will be seen in how far the new tax regime immediately boosts economic growth on the one hand, and help ease the high indirect taxation on goods and services that unfairly penalizes rich and poor alike.

Planning for disasters

The political corruption that almost enmeshed the disaster of the 2004 Tsunami may be fading memory, but disasters, even if less destructive and tragic than the 2004 catastrophe, continue to plague this country and advance planning is needed. The on-going drought-to-floods-to-disease cycles seem to be becoming the new norm in weather conditions – not just in this country but in the region and across the globe.

Fortunately, the people of this country and, indeed of this region, are fast becoming sensitive to the crisis of global climate change. The citizenry, therefore, expects the political leadership, and the administration, as well as business and industry, to come together to address the emerging new climate conditions and its potentially devastating human and economic repercussions.

While the on-going cycle of weather emergencies has helped the immediate response services to refine their skills and capacities, the Government has now correctly taken the lead in planning ahead – to ensure that the economy is equipped to take such mini-calamities in its stride. Economic continuity is critical for stability and long term growth.

We hope that the business community will support the Government in this endeavour. After all, profit margins are among the first to be hit by ‘inclement weather’ unless anticipated with a Plan B.