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Enactment of key finance bills: Govt. not following due process – Opposition

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Opposition MP Prof. Charitha Herath yesterday took exception to the inclusion of the controversial Economic Transformation Bill (ETB) and the Public Financial Management (PFM) Bill in the first week’s agenda of Parliament in June, in spite of the Bills not being subjected to due process yet.

Parliament meets on June 4, 5 and 6. Declaring that the ETB and PFM had been included in the June 5 and 6 agenda, respectively, the dissident SLPP MP pointed out the irregularity in doing so in the absence of the Supreme Court determination on the two Bills.

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga on May 22 presented the two Bills to the House.

Responding to The Island queries, Prof. Herath said that those opposed to the Bills could challenge them in the Supreme Court within two weeks. The first entrant to Parliament Herath asked as to why Parliament included them in its agenda before the SC decided on their constitutionality.

The JVP-led NPP would move the SC against the ETB, according to top spokesman Vijitha Herath, MP.

Herath, a former Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), asked what would happen if the Supreme Court ruled that many sections of the ETB were flawed and remedial measures required.

MP Herath said that the two Bills hadn’t been discussed at the Committee on Public Finance headed by Dr. Harsha de Silva. Alleging that the government was in an indecent hurry to enact these controversial laws, lawmaker Herath said that the relevant Sectoral Oversight Committee or committees were yet to examine them.

Prof. G. L. Peiris, MP, told The Island that legislation, with such far reaching repercussions, should not be enacted by a government without a popular mandate within its last 100 days. The former External Affairs Minister and one-time SLPP heavyweight said: “ETB purports to bind future Parliaments and to thrust upon them the economic policy of President Wickremesinghe which is at variance with the publicly expressed convictions of the SLPP which commands a majority in the current Parliament.”

Recently Prof. Peiris switched his allegiance to the SJB. Claiming that President Wickremesinghe was blatantly exploiting the situation to push ahead with his much-disputed agenda, MP Peiris said: “Local entrepreneurship which needs to be nurtured and strengthened, is placed at a distinct disadvantage by   the Bill. An unelected President, by virtue of his power of nomination to controlling mechanisms, is able to concentrate more and more authority in his hands, at the expense of broad-based institutions. The degree of detail set out smacks of intolerable arrogance: it purports to deprive succeeding administrations of legitimate decision-making capability. Changes of this magnitude are compatible with the tenets of representative democracy only in the aftermath of fresh national elections, due very shortly.”

Asked about planned legal action, Prof. Peiris said that proposed legislation would certainly be challenged vigorously by various parties. The ex-Minister said that the SC determination was not a solution in itself. The Court could only determine whether particular provisions were inconsistent with the Constitution, and therefore required a special majority or a referendum for enactment. The Court’s constitutional function would not enable it to examine broader aspects from a policy perspective, he added.

The Island sought State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe’s views on the proposed laws against the backdrop of SLPP Chairman Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent declaration in respect of government economic strategy. The Anuradhapura district lawmaker said that since July 2022, President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP had worked according to a certain framework. Therefore, there was no likelihood of the SLPP withholding support for these laws.

The former President while calling the present government an interim arrangement formed to run the country for the remainder of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term, declared: “Even the pro-privatization lobby should realize that the hasty divestiture of state owned assets at a time like this will not produce the best outcome for the country. Furthermore, the next Presidential election is only a few months away. Hence, as a measure to ease the widespread discontent over the government’s divestiture drive, I wish to propose that all moves to sell off state owned assets or enterprises be postponed until a new government is formed after the next Presidential election. The new government will then be able to deal with state-owned properties and enterprises in accordance with the mandate they obtain at the election.”

State Minister Semasinghe said that the Opposition shouldn’t follow destructive strategies meant to reverse the economic revival. The MP stressed that in addition to the much-discussed ETB and PFM, there was another crucial Bill aimed at addressing the challenges the country faced.  “We’ll take the Public Debt Management Bill on June 4,” lawmaker Semasinghe said, claiming that the three Bills were intended to provide much needed stability at all levels.

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