Independence of the Judiciary is crystal clear – State Minister Eran Wickremaratne | Sunday Observer

Independence of the Judiciary is crystal clear – State Minister Eran Wickremaratne

State Minister of Finance - Eran Wickramaratne
State Minister of Finance - Eran Wickramaratne

State Minister of Finance, Eran Wickramaratne ,said the independence of the judiciary is crystal clear because of its ruling against the Presidential Act of dissolving the Government. MP Wickramaratne in an interview with the Sunday Observer said that it was witnessed in the recent past that the Courts and the Judiciary vigorously worked to uphold the law and also acted independently.This was seen right throughout and not just on matters relating to Parliament and the Constitution. It was also evident even in the Lower Courts as well. He said it augurs well for the future of this country that the Executive arm of the Government will not be able to basically curtail the functions of Parliament or the Judiciary.

Q: Now the UNP’s slogan is, more than anything else it was a victory for democracy. What are your views?

A: Yes. It was a victory for democracy. It was a victory for the Rule of Law. It was also a victory for holding the supremacy of the people through the Constitution and it was a people’s victory. The UNP and the United National Front played a leading role in it. But we must never forget that the victory belongs to the people and the enormous support the other political parties in the country gave. The civil society too made a very important contribution.

Q: Your party asserts that it got a new lease of life thanks to Supreme Court determination. Is there any truth in this?

A: We had a mandate for five years. It is only after four-and-a-half years that Parliament could be dissolved and fresh elections called. Therefore, it was an unconstitutional act basically to dissolve Parliament. Certainly, the Supreme Court particularly giving an interim order that Parliament cannot be prorogued and then subsequently giving an order against the dissolution of Parliament really established the people’s right and mandate and the Constitution.

So, I think the independence of the Judiciary was crystal clear because the Judiciary ruled against the Chief Executive, the President’s order. We have seen in the recent past that the courts and the justice system worked vigorously to uphold the law and also acted independently and it was seen right throughout and not on just matters relating to Parliament and the Constitution. It was also evident even in the lower courts. I think it augurs well for the future of this country that the Executive arm of the Government will not be able to basically curtail the functions of the Parliament or the Judiciary.

Q: What are your priorities or strategies within the short span of one and half years to win the votes of the people at a General Election?

A: I think our Government had done a lot of work for which it had not got the credit. Basically, it had strengthened democracy. If you look at things such as freedom of expression, media freedom, there had not been any accusations of people being murdered or going missing during these three-and-a-half years. So ,everybody acknowledges that democracy has been strengthened. The right to information was also in that direction strengthening the citizens’ rights. In addition to the democratic framework, we have also worked hard in the post-military conflict area by building a reconciliation framework as well. But until we had this crisis that was brought about by the removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and then forcing Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the Prime Minister and subsequently the No Confidence Motion against him demonstrated how democracy has really begun to work for which we did not get the credit for creating this framework until the crisis was created.

The positive factors are the Government putting through the 19th amendment and also the independent commissions . However, the crisis has shown that Sri Lanka is a vibrant democracy. The negatives factors of the crisis were really more economic because it created uncertainty, it stopped investors coming into the country and it stopped local investors from putting their money resulting in a confidence crisis.

Three major rating agencies Moody’s, Fitch, S&P have downgraded Sri Lanka. As a result, the cost of borrowing internationally has gone off while the cost of rupee borrowings has gone up. I estimate that it has gone up and the extra payments just for these 50 odd days of this problem will be more than Rs.20 billion. Now, that democracy and the reconciliation are there I think the future programs have to focus mainly on the economy.

As for the economy there are things that we have not been able to do in the last three and a half years. Partially, it was because we had a coalition Government and we had many policy issues. As a result, the Government got bogged down on policy issues and disagreements. The implementation of initiatives also suffered. As macro fundamentals of our economy were very weak we have to strengthen the macro fundamentals. The growth rates have come down. Now, we are having a United National Front Government. We have policy coherency as we go forward and we will be able to do some of the things which we couldn’t do. For example, we have people who are receiving social benefits like Samurdhi and the names of the people who have been droppedare still remaining on the list. We have to rationalise the list. There are hundreds of thousands of people who should receive social benefits. We will be implementing Samurdhi. We are going to focus on the agricultural sector and also replanting of tea and rubber. We want to strengthen the agricultural sector by providing necessary inputs such as fertiliser. Being an island state, Sri Lanka has a large fishery community. We need to bring down the cost of energy for those who are doing fishing. We have started a program called ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka’ to subsidise loan schemes for new entrepreneurs and we want to implement it fully.

All of those have been disrupted over the last two months. Then Gam Peraliya program is to strengthen the local rural economy. These are some of the things which have been started but got disrupted and there will be a big focus on it. On the private sector side, we want to help small and medium companies to thrive and easy access to capital and funds. We also want to protect our Sri Lankan companies from unfair foreign competition. Thus,we have lots of things that we are planning to do during this one and a half years.

Q: Already the 13 th Amendment has devolved powers to Provincial Councils. Will not more devolution result in a Federal form of Government?

A: I think this is a complete myth. Many people are talking about things like that as imagined by them. I think the only thing that we have to go by is what is actually happening in Parliament and not what the people just get on platforms and say every day. This country has been taken down this road for too long by creating myths and just putting fright into the lives of people. We really emerged as a unified country after the colonial rule. Then the people began to see the value of being a unified country. Everybody in Parliament agrees that Sri Lanka is a unitary state. The Leader of the Opposition of the Sri Lankan Parliament who represents the TNA himself has said ,the solution that they are looking for is within a unitary state.

This is what I called an undivided state. We have a Constitution and it has gone through 19 Amendments. I think there is no point in tinkering with these Amendments. Therefore, we should look at a new Constitution because when we brought in the 17 th Amendment, the people said we brought it in a rush. After a while ,the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought in the 18th Amendment. Before Mahinda Rajapaksa became the President in 2005, he said he was going to abolish the Executive Presidency. Before that in 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said that she was going to abolish the Executive Presidency. They all said so when they were running for elections and wanted to win the elections. Only after that point, they sat in the chair of the presidency and continued.

Mahinda Rajapaksa went one step further and brought in the 18th Amendment strengthening the Executive Presidency by removing the term limit which was the last of the checks and balances of the Executive Presidency. Thus, without going for further Amendments, it is like having a house which is falling down and 19 Amendments are doing patchworks on it. The time has come to demolish the house and build on a new foundation.

But what we need now is not a house, we need a building because some of our citizens are sitting out in the rain and the sun but some of us are occupying portions of the house. We have to put a building where everybody is in comfort in the building. The foundation for that is the Constitution. The Parliament promulgated a new Constitutional process and we had six or seven Sub Committees. We have given all our reports. There is a Steering Committee and this has been an all-party effort in Parliament.

The Steering Committee has now come up with its report. The next step is that we will put the report to Parliament to be debated. There is no point in people talking about federalism or division. We should really look at what is there. After we debate that report, we should come up with a constitutional draft which is in black and white and then have it debated and approved by Parliament and next put to a Referendum. That is the only way which isa long process as well. Everybody has to participate in the process and it has to be a completely open process. That is the foundation on which we can build Sri Lanka’s future.

The Mahinda Chinthana manifesto of 2005 said that it expects to present a Constitution that will propose the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Then the All Party Conference in 2006 recommended abolishing the Executive Presidency. After that President Maithripala Sirisena in his election manifesto also pledged to abolish the Executive Presidential System which has unlimited powers. It said “ the President needs the assistance of Parliament to change the post of the Executive President because it is the Parliament which has the power to amend the Constitution.

The Parliament was unable to effect this change for the past 20 years. It is the President who is the leader of the main party who should provide leadership to pass constitutional amendments with two thirds majority. For that the President should take the initiative to reach an accord with political parties. It is to fulfill this task I decided to come forward as the Common Candidate to the people at the Presidential Election.” Then he goes on to say in his manifesto “ In order to change the Executive Presidential system, I take as background material agreements for abolishing the Executive Presidential system reached by the Movement for a Just Society headed by Ven.Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera.”

Then there is devolution and the people also talk about the North. It is not about the North and it is about the South as well. In August 2016, at the Conference of Provincial Councils for new devolution, the Central Provincial Council asked to reactivate taxation powers devolved on to the provinces, guaranteeing transfers that are made under an independent expenditure heads of Provincial Councils and a provincial list instead of a Concurrent List. They want to get rid of the Concurrent List and give them the Provincial list. The Southern Provincial Council wants to liberalise the regulation of provincial statute-making procedure. They are also saying not only the Parliament, but let them also make statutes that involve them and implement the powers devolved on to the Provinces under the 13 th Amendment specifying the expenditure heads.

The Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council requested to bring local administration within its purview. The Western Provincial Council wanted to equalise all benefits to state officials without restrictions between the centre and the periphery. As I said, the demand for this is not coming from the North. So, this process cannot be done by an Amendment again and we have to put the full foundation and it has to be a fully fledged process. It has to be an inclusive process and we are going to build on this. As I said that the demand for this is not coming from the North. It is often we who defeat the best thing for the country by trying to paint it in absurd ways.

In this new Constitution, we should decide how many ministries the Government should have. We should not leave this to the discretion of political leaders because the political leaders for the last 40 years have failed us. In 2013, there was a jumbo Cabinet. The Cabinet of Ministers was 67 including the Executive President, Prime Minister and 10 Senior Ministers. Another 20 were Deputy Ministers.

Then they named another category called Project Ministers. In the 225-member Parliament, this takes the total number of Ministers to 97. Can you imagine what kind of nonsense we have basically done? That is why the number needs to be fixed. I think 30 is the maximum and even 25 is fine. According to the 19 th Amendment it is 30. But using a loophole,they formed a National Government with few parties so that the number of ministerial portfolios was increased up to 45 by a resolution. It is not just a question of limiting the number, we must gazette the areas as well. The Cabinet must be on a scientific basis. Sometimes, the subject institutions are in a wrong place. The new Constitution needs to be drafted in a proper and transparent manner.

Q: The people see political crossovers as not in the interest of anything other than personal benefits and people hate this practice. Your comments?

A: I think people are justified in hating the practice because what the people see is that politicians are crossing over not on principle but they crossover either for positions or financial gain. So, we should find ways and means of prohibiting crossovers and if they crossover they should lose their Parliamentary seat. This is a big issue that the public are raising and we should be careful. I am hoping that those who do that will not be rewarded with positions when the Cabinet is being formed.

Q: Unless there is a dynamic Cabinet with highly competent Ministers, it will not be an easy task to execute any plans to benefit the country and its people within the short spell of one and half years. What have you got to say about this?

A: I think if you have a limited Cabinet there are three principles which will have to be considered. One is the principle of seniority in the appointments. The second thing to be considered is geographical representation and the third is the people of ability and experience. These three things are not easy to combine. I pity the Prime Minister who will have to make that decision and I think that based on those principles as to who should be included should be definitely the Prime Minister’s prerogative.

Q: Will the 20th Amendment be a reality when both the SLFP and SLPP are totally against it?

A: The 20th Amendment focuses on the abolition of the Executive Presidency. In principle, we are in agreement with it. But we should look beyond it and have a constitutional process that really looks at not only the abolition of the Executive Presidency but the whole of the Constitution. That is what we would prefer because that will be more acceptable to the country.

Q: The UNP backbenchers demanded a hange of party leadership. Are there any moves afoot in this direction?

A: After the February Local Government elections, the UNP had a postmortem and we saw Members of Parliament involved in a brainstorming session and one of the proposals that came was that we need to democratise the party. Now the political parties in Asia are not democratic. They are trying to create a democratic society without being democratic themselves. That is a big weakness. If you take larger parties even in Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, they are not democratic. In Sri Lanka, the United National Party is the only party that can show the way for this. Because if you take the SLFP and the parties like that they all are family based parties. When the family is losing control they are going to form a different party like what they have now formed, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. This proposal has now come to democratise the party. I think the party is democratised when its Leader and Deputy Leader are elected by the votes of Members of Parliament and the Working Committee.

Q: The people suspect that the UNP has an agreement with the TNA to concede some of their demands. Will nt this be favoured by the majority community?

A: The TNA is the legitimate democratic representative of the Tamil-speaking people. I think the question itself suggests making it illegitimate. Because the same question will not be asked about the UNP, JHU or the SLMC. The TNA is not a part of our Government. There are some of other parties which are part of the United National Front but the TNA is not. The Tamil representatives on principle don’t join the Government but they are working for their people. They want to make sure that they extend support to any party, it can be us or somebody else in return for things that can be done for their people. If the TNA is providing any support to any party they want to make sure the areas it represents could be developed. That is completely legitimate. There is nothing hidden and new about it. The UNF Government is truly working for the benefit of all the citizens of this country.

Q: Are there any plans to reorganise the party by giving pride of place to young MPs, to face the future challenges?

A: I think one of the things that is coming out of the present crisis is that the UNP will move towards some major reorganisation. That is one of the things that is becoming clear with the crisis. We have to use this opportunity because we have to face a presidential election and a General Election within the next 12 to 14 months. Therefore, that will have to be done and it will definitely be done.