Prez accused of seeking to gain total control of public finance




‘Public Debt Management Bill threat to democratic governance’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Opposition MP Charitha Herath yesterday (30) alleged that the controversial Public Debt Management Bill that had been tabled in Parliament last week was aimed at bringing public sector finance entirely under the Finance Minister.

Claiming that UNP leader and President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Finance Minister, seemed to be bent on achieving total control over public finance, dissident SLPP MP warned of dire consequences if the ruling party backed what he called an authoritarian move.

Herath dealt with the Public Debt Management Bill at a briefing held at the Nawala office of the Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa.

Several members of the SLPP dissident group, including Prof. G.L. Peiris and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, have aligned themselves with the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

The National List MP said that the proposed Bill would deprive other members of the Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, of powers so far exercised by them pertaining to their ministries and instead subjecting them to the Finance Minister’s control.

Once this Bill received the approval of Parliament, as far as public finance matters are concerned, all other ministries would be irrelevant, MP Herath said.

The issue at hand is that the President happened to be the Finance Minister, MP Herath said. Responding to a query regarding the responsibility of Parliament for public finance raised by The Island, MP Herath said: “In terms of Article 148, all public finances will be under the total control of Parliament. Therefore, the Finance portfolio, being under a person not represented in Parliament, is a matter for serious concern. If public finance is constitutionally under Parliament, the executive shouldn’t, under any circumstances, hold that particular portfolio.”

The Public Debt Management Bill had been formulated in such a way that once Parliament approved it, the Finance portfolio could be held only by a President, the Opposition MP said, asserting that the democratic way of governance was facing an extreme threat.

Asked to explain, MP Herath said that the latest move seemed to be in line with Wickremesinghe’s overall political strategy in the run-up to the presidential election.

MP Herath issued copies of the Bill to the media urging them to vigorously pursue the issue. The SLPPer found fault with political parties and the media for not paying sufficient attention to the developing dictatorial situation.

Referring to the passage of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Bill on July 20, 2023, MP Herath said that though the UNP had just one National List MP in Parliament Wickremesinghe obviously achieved the unthinkable by craftily exploiting the current situation. The Second Reading of the Bill was passed by a majority of 42 votes, with 66 voting in favour and 24 voting against it.

The Public Debt Management Bill would cause further deterioration of democratic governance, MP Herath alleged, claiming that the President was seeking an apparatus hitherto unavailable to any President to control public finance.

MP Herath claimed that the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government had formulated the Public Debt Management Bill on the basis of the IMF’s recommendations/conditions in the wake of the unprecedented economic crisis that erupted in late 2021. Acknowledging that the country hadn’t been out of the woods yet though the government finalized agreement with the IMF in March 2023 regarding the USD 2.9 bn bailout package, MP Herath said the solution couldn’t be found in an apparatus run by the executive.

Had that happened, there wouldn’t be any meaning to Parliament being constitutionally responsible for public finance, MP Herath said.

The first-time entrant to Parliament said that the UNP leader had no regard for democratic way of governance. The move to break-up the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and privatize various cash cows meant that the UNP leader pursued his same old agenda that had been over and over again rejected by the electorate.

MP Herath urged his colleagues to be mindful of their responsibilities as the President was all out to privatize the remaining public assets.