‘Govt is stronger and more confident in 2022’ | Sunday Observer

‘Govt is stronger and more confident in 2022’

2 January, 2022

Leader of the House and Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said issues within the government will be resolved and a stronger and confident government will move positively into 2022.

The minister, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, said the SLPP-led government is one of the grandest coalitions formed in recent times. Thus, some issues have emerged. Various statements are being made by members of various coalition parties but they are still members of the government parliamentary group. Amid all views of opposing camps, the government has moved forward through the Covid crisis unlike some government that would collapse in such a situation. However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has managed the crisis and we are emerging out of it. Therefore, all dire predictions will prove futile.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: The Opposition alleges that the prorogation of Parliament was meant to terminate investigations undertaken by parliamentary watchdog committees: Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and Committee on Public Finance (COPF). Your views?

A: The Opposition seems to be living in their own world, forgetting the past parliamentary traditions and practices that we have followed in the annals of parliamentary history. Parliament has been prorogued and vacation are given by all parliaments almost annually. After the Budget, the Head of State delivers his speech to the highest legislature of the land, and the message is carried across the nation.

After a long and an interrupted year of Parliament sittings, Parliament was prorogued as it has been the practice. Some committees of Parliament could function if they want even after prorogation. Some committees have to be reappointed giving the option to members to change them so that they are already sitting in accordance with their instances. So, what the Opposition says has no validity other than empty propaganda.

Q: How do you view the present conduct of the Opposition, which is not in a position to cooperate with the government in a natural disaster like this?

A: Covid-19 is an unprecedented health crisis across the world where human life is affected and in danger. In such an international crisis, in parliamentary democracies, the Opposition extends its support and works with an understanding with the government to protect the lives of the people. We don’t see this principle being followed by the present Opposition.

Q: What is the progress of the Parliament Select Committee for Electoral Reforms appointed to identify reforms of the election laws and electoral system?

A: The Parliament Select Committee on Electoral Reforms has been sitting in the past few months and we got our last extension to conclude and submit our report on March 31. The constitutional drafting committee appointed by the President is also expected to submit its report which will also reconsider election laws. Our select committee has had consideration of political parties, Members of Parliament, different civil society groups from the North to South and West to the East.

We have been deliberating to reach finality in Local Government election law reforms, Provincial Council laws and parliamentary election laws and colossal expenditure that covers elections by candidates, parties and other institutions to reduce and bring these into accountability. We will be able to submit our report after Parliament resumes in January.  

Q:  What is the current position with regard to drafting a new constitution, which has become a key topic among the public? 

A: The President has clearly announced that the draft of the special committee appointed by him will be submitted before the end of 2021. Now, we have ended the year and we hope we will be able to deliberate on the draft as it is being submitted as expected.

Q: There is a public perception that the dignity and decorum of Parliament has deteriorated. What steps should be taken to address this issue?

A: Over the years, Parliament has had the effects of being criticised for decorum and the credibility of what Parliamentarians deliver.  The Speaker and party leaders have been discussing and we hope that a certain amount of high standards are maintained by Parliament irrespective of personal allegations and personality criticism which I don’t think the society expects from the highest legislature in their debates.  

Q: The JVP and some civil organisations have raised concern over the government’s recent closure of Consulates in Cyprus, Nigeria and Frankfurt, Germany, in a measure to save foreign exchange. Your views?

A: It is a decision that has been made on the recommendation of Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris. I think the government has approved the decision. But we should have our foreign office representatives in countries where we have our relations and hoping to improve and open up new trade, commerce and investment.  Perhaps, a new approach has to come rather than traditional ways we have been conducting. The other countries have also adopted new approaches which our government should consider. As the former Foreign Minister, I proposed this and I think the present Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris is in the process of considering these new approaches.

Q: The US has categorized another senior Sri Lankan military officer, Major General Udaya Perera, Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner to Malaysia (2009-2011) as a war crime suspect, denying entry to the US recently, although he has a five-year multiple entry visa issued in August 2019. Your views?

A: This is not the first time that western countries have accused us at different times in this manner. Courts of law with long consideration have now declared the barbarity of the LTTE, and their portrayal as a humane organisation to mislead western society. In recent times, it was exposed. It takes time for this false information to be rolled back and Sri Lanka has been consistently able to place our facts over the years on a concrete and strong position based on the information that is available to our country.

Q: The JVP has warned of an imminent food shortage in the country. Is there any truth in it?

A: We are moving towards the new harvest within the next few months. There could be shortfalls in some areas. But we have reached self-sufficiency in some areas as a result of the President’s new food program. So, the government is well aware and considering all results coming from different districts. We are committed and we will assure the people of delivering essential foods to the market.

Q: At present, Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves have dropped to US$ 1.5 billion. What measures have been taken to address the foreign reserves crisis?

A: As I mentioned before, we have gone through the most difficult Covid-19 economics and post Covid-19 economics which is affecting all smaller countries.  Even the richest countries have cut down most of the expenditure. As a result, we are also affected in investment, tourism and other areas that are our sources of foreign exchange growth. The government and the Finance Minister are addressing the issue and have been able to get positive support from friendly countries and institutions which the Finance Ministry is engaged in negotiations with. Let us be confident and move forward to 2022, which is going to be a more positive growth in our production, agriculture industry and services that will strengthen the economy.

Q: Has any decision been taken by the government to seek an IMF bailout?

A: The government is discussing with our friendly countries and also other international support agencies. The ADB has also come to support. Let us not forget that we are also a member of the IMF. There are various possible new instruments available in the international market.  Therefore, let us not be traditional theorists as this new situation needs new approaches.

Q: The Opposition says the recent fuel price hike is unjust and it would result in further increases in prices of all goods and services. Has the government laid emphasis on the impact of the fuel price hike?

A:  Sri Lanka has to go through more reforms in saving fuel and foreign exchange expenditure. Alternative and wasteful areas have to be newly managed, which is essential and subsidies given to areas to cushion any of the trends that would take place.

Q: Is there any conflict among the coalition parties of the government as speculated by the media?

A: This is one of the grandest coalitions of the coalition governments. Therefore, some issues have emerged. Various statements are being made by members of various parties but they are still members of the government parliamentary group. Amid dire predictions from opposing camps, the government has moved forward through the crisis. Some predicted that we would collapse in the Covid situation being unable to manage it. But the President has managed it and we are emerging out of it. Similarly, all such predictions will prove otherwise. Our issues will be resolved and a stronger and confident government will move positively into 2022. 

Q: Has any decision been taken to increase the university intake by 10,000 in 2022?

A: The University Grants Commission (UGC), with the support of the Ministry and the President, has decided to increase the university intake by 10,000 in 17 universities and other graduate institutions. New faculties will be launched and that will be another positive development for students.  We are also considering how we could reduce the time period of sitting for exams and releasing results which takes a long time.

We want to cut this down by a year, targeting 2023. In addition, the President will also launch the thousand national schools program on January 7 from Moneragala, the poorest district of the country by upgrading Siyambalanduwa Maha Vidyalaya to the status of a National School with all facilities. Then we would be able to develop those rural and remote schools with more facilities. This program will create a new set of National Schools throughout the country. Schools have reopened for 4.2 million students who will come back to their classes on January 3. The government has managed this in accordance with the health regulations which our ministry will continue to monitor and facilitate.

Q: Is the Education Ministry formulating a national education policy?

A: The National Education Commission and all other stakeholders are working in new areas where new possibilities, alternatives and approaches could be developed from primary education to university education, and technical education to vocational education. It takes time and this is not an area where one could rush. We are committed to see how we can move forward in this area.