Editorial/Opinion

GR’s speech and Budget sets tone for Government

  • MR presents 75th national budget while celebrating 75th birthday
  • Attanayake’s speech draws telephone call from President
  • Dayasiri walks into Opposition Leader’s office in the House
  • Opposition focuses on lack of clarity and relief in Budget 2021

Last week marked several milestones for the Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

While the President marked his first year in office, Prime Minister Rajapaksa delivered the maiden Budget of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led Government.

The Government’s maiden Budget, in fact, was presented on the day the President marked one year since being elected to office. The Budget 2021 is the 75th national budget to be presented post independence. Coincidentally, the Prime Minister delivered the 75th national budget on the eve of his 75th birthday.

When noting milestones, there is another interesting milestone related to the Government’s Budget 2021. With the presentation, Prime Minister Rajapaksa managed to break the record set by a former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel.

It has been recorded that de Mel, as one-time Finance Minister, had delivered 11 national budgets. However, Rajapaksa who had previously presented 10 national budgets last week equalled de Mel’s record.

The Budget 2021 that was delivered one year after President Rajapaksa recorded a victory at the 2019 presidential election focused on a more technology-driven economy, moving out of the usual development strategies that successive governments had followed in the past.

However, while the budget proposals were impressive, there seemed to be a lack of clarity on the Government’s revenue generation methods for the next year.

Budget 2021

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, in his capacity as Finance Minister, on Tuesday (17) delivered the Government’s maiden Budget, focusing on developing the country’s economy to be on a par with the global technology-driven economies, as well as to utilise the country’s geopolitical significance in the Indian Ocean region.

The Prime Minister arrived at the Parliament Complex at around 1 p.m.

After arriving at the Prime Minister’s Office on the second floor of the Parliament Complex, Rajapaksa engaged in a conversation with Leader of the House Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Chief Government Whip Minister Johnston Fernando. Treasury Secretary S.R. Attygalle had also joined in the conversation.

Fernando, meanwhile, had informed the Prime Minister that three MPs were celebrating birthdays that day. The Premier was informed that SLPP MPs Weerasumana Weerasinghe and Premnath C. Dolawatte as well as Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Aravind Kumar were celebrating their birthdays that day.

However, Rajapaksa had said that he had already wished the parliamentarians for their birthdays that morning.

Fernando had then said that three cakes were being brought to Parliament for the three MPs. The Prime Minister had said the cakes could be served to the MPs at the parliamentary group meeting scheduled later that day.

Parliament sittings officially commenced at 1.40 p.m. under the patronage of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.

The Prime Minister entered the Parliament Chamber at around 1.45 p.m. and delivered the budget proposals for 2021 in two parts.

“Irrespective of the economic standing of the country, irrespective of the challenges we are faced with, we must acknowledge that there is a paradigm shift in the world economy, which moved forward with industrialisation and has now entered into a technology-driven economy. As policymakers, we must view this as a reason to move away from our outdated strategies, and in developing the agriculture, industry, and services sectors, technology infusion should be prioritised in accessing the integrated production and service processes.

“In preparing the economic development plan of our country, we must highlight that the country and the nation as one, which is rich in biodiversity, committed to eco-sensitive sustainable development with a unique identity, and equipped with a rich cultural history and legacy,” Rajapaksa said at the outset of the speech.

The Prime Minister, noting Sri Lanka’s growing significance in the Indian Ocean geopolitical landscape, also said: “We are at a time when many countries have realised the geopolitical significance of our country. I believe that our neighbouring India will be a powerful economy in the world in the next decade. I also believe China, together with several other Asian countries, will be amongst the five most powerful economies in the world. The high-growth neighbouring Asian market accounts for 60% of the global population and emerging economic zone.”

“We should formulate our national policies with a long-term strategic vision, protecting our sovereignty, to exploit the development opportunities that arise as a central hub, in the new economic order of the world, to both the conventional western advanced economies and the powerful emerging eastern economies. We must develop the Hambantota and Colombo Ports together with the airports to be a centre in international commercial processes, expanding the domestic economic opportunities within a broad national vision,” he added.

Halfway through the budget speech, Parliament was adjourned for a tea break.

While the Prime Minister continued with the budget speech, Leader of the House Minister Gunawardena requested the Premier for a break and a request was made from the Speaker to adjourn Parliament for a tea break.

The Speaker adjourned sittings for about half an hour. The Premier by then had read the first half of the budget speech.

Once sittings resumed after the tea break, the Prime Minister recommenced his speech and midway during the speech requested the Speaker permission to continue with the remainder of the speech seated.

The Speaker granted the request and the Prime Minister continued with the speech while being seated.

Following the publication of the 2021 Appropriation Bill in the gazette on 6 October, it was presented to Parliament by Prime Minister Rajapaksa on 20 October for the first reading.

The second reading debate of the Budget commenced on Wednesday (18) and continued till Saturday (21) when the vote on the second reading was to take place at 5 p.m.

The debate of the committee stage will commence on Monday (23) and is scheduled to conclude on 10 December. Accordingly, the vote will be held at 5 p.m. on the 10 December.

Tea party

Only ambassadors and officials authorised by the Finance Ministry were invited for the budget speech and the tea party. The public and media galleries were closed, citing Covid-19 health guidelines.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa cutting a cake at the Parliament Complex celebrating his 75 Birthday, 8 November 2020

Following the conclusion of the budget presentation and the tea party, the governing party, as well as the main Opposition, held their group meetings at the Parliament Complex. Accordingly, the governing party parliamentary group was held in Committee Room 1 and the Opposition meeting in Committee Room 2.

The discussion was mainly focused on the budget debate and the modalities related to it.

However, before commencing the parliamentary group meeting, Prime Minister Rajapaksa had arrived at his office in Parliament. Minister Johnston Fernando had entered the office with three birthday cakes.

The birthday boys – Weerasinghe, Dolawatte, and Aravind Kumar – were invited to the office, and along with other governing party MPs, the birthday cakes were cut to the tune of “Happy Birthday”.

Fernando had then cut the cakes and distributed cake pieces among the governing party MPs.

At this point, Aravind Kumar had said that while he had been with the United National Party (UNP) in the past five years, none of the party leaders had bothered to wish him on his birthday.

Birthday celebrations

Wednesday (18), the day after the Budget was presented, was the Prime Minister’s 75th birthday.

The many birthday celebrations resulted in a low turnout in the House when the debate on the second reading of the Budget commenced on Wednesday morning. Only two governing party MPs had been present in the Chamber since a majority had gone to visit the Prime Minister to wish him.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa had several cakes to cut to mark his birthday.

However, the first cake was cut by him along with his first grandson, Nirvaan Rajapaksa. Wife Shiranthi Rajapaksa and sons Yoshitha and Rohitha Rajapaksa, along with their spouses, also participated in the celebrations.

The second cake was cut at the Prime Minister’s official residence on Wijerama Mawatha in Colombo 7.

Family members, friends, well-wishers, and several parliamentarians were also present at the event. Interestingly, the cake’s design captured the attention of many since it was structured as an erect replica of the Lotus Tower.

Another brief celebration was organised at the Prime Minister’s office in Parliament.

This was the third cake cut by Rajapaksa. After cutting the cake, pieces were distributed among the parliamentarians who had arrived at the office with the Premier.

Opposition doubts

It was SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva who opened the budget debate for the Opposition.

De Silva questioned the statistics revealed by the Government. He noted that while the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) have predicted a negative growth for Sri Lanka in 2020, the Government has predicted a 6.7% growth rate for the economy.

He observed that despite seeming like a miracle, the Finance Ministry has publicised this fact.

In lighter vein, de Silva questioned if the economic growth rate stated by the Government was yet another misleading act like the clay pots prepared by Dr. Eliyantha White which were thrown into rivers to cure Covid-19.

He further said that if the Government has enough funds to carpet roads, it cannot say it doesn’t have funds to provide relief to the people.

“The Budget makes no proposal in terms of social welfare and the Government has no faith in the ability of our people,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said the country would face grave difficulties if it didn’t go for an immediate foreign debt restructuring.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), meanwhile, said the Budget 2021 presented by the Government had failed to reveal the ways the Government would generate revenue.

Speaking at a news briefing on Wednesday (18), JVP member Sunil Handunnetti said the Government’s helplessness in the wake of an economic crisis was evident from the Budget.

“No solution was proposed to the debt crisis or how to earn income. Either the Government is not aware of these issues or is hiding the issues from the public,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said the Government has encouraged those in possession of ill-gotten money to invest in the budget proposals for a 1% tax.

The SJB said in Parliament that the Budget 2021 had failed to provide any relief to the people who were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Firm message

While the debate on the Government’s Budget 2021 commenced in Parliament, President Rajapaksa addressed the nation on Wednesday (18) night, as he marked one year in office.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addresses the nation to mark one year in office, 18 November 2020.

Rajapaksa called on all Sri Lankans to work together in order to take the country forward in a systematic manner in line with a policy framework to overcome the challenges before the country, and pledged to take whatever action necessary to achieve the target of making Sri Lanka a prosperous nation.

The President made this observation while addressing the nation Wednesday (18) evening to mark the first anniversary in office since being elected President at last year’s presidential election.

“Not only Sri Lanka, but the whole world has reached an important milestone in history. There are many challenges ahead of us. All Sri Lankans who love their motherland must work together to take the country forward in a systematic manner, while acting according to a definite policy frame to overcome these challenges,” President Rajapaksa said.

The President went on to say the country was able to defeat LTTE terrorism, which was a major threat to the country, as a result of a collective effort, noting: “At that time, the majority of our country was committed to achieve one goal. We faced the challenges with team spirit and in a disciplined manner.”

“We should be able to conquer the economic challenges the country is facing in the future in the same manner we won the war when most were of the opinion that we would not be able to win it. We should understand that all of us have a common responsibility in this regard. In this context, not only the politicians and officials, but also the public have the responsibility to actively contribute in increasing the production capacity of the country, to improve service efficiency, and to eliminate corruption,” President Rajapaksa noted.

The President also drew attention to the commitment to introduce a new constitution.

“We have already appointed a committee to seek public opinion to draft a new constitution. The success of a democratic state is determined by the constitution of that country. Even though we were able to eliminate the problematic situation created by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution by passing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, a few controversial aspects still remain,” he said.

Referring to the battle against the drug menace in the country, the President said: “Prior to my assumption of office, many lives had been lost in this country to the activities of religious extremists. The underworld had become powerful and a wave of killings had begun throughout the country. Sri Lanka had become a haven for international drug traffickers. The country was becoming insecure due to the weakening of the intelligence and security forces. Historic sacred sites of archaeological value were being encroached by extremists.

“After I came into power, I appointed suitable officials in charge of the security apparatus of the country and gave them the required authority to carry out their responsibilities without any compromise. The intelligence services that had collapsed in the past were restructured and revitalised. Accordingly, we have managed to control the possibility of a resurgence of extremism in any form. A very effective and robust programme has been implemented to control the drug menace. There is no room anymore to engage in drug trafficking or operate the underworld from inside of prison cells as in the past.”

The President then drew attention to the fact that the people have given him and his Government a huge mandate to make the country prosperous while changing the traditional political culture.

President Rajapaksa also expressed hope in establishing a government that gives priority to talent or skill over relationships, gives more attention for the common needs than individual desires, motivates investments instead of obtaining loans, honours actions than words, and values the true public service over deceitful exhibitionism. “The political authority, as well as the public servants, should take responsibilities in this regard.”

“I am a person who has constantly faced challenges and overcome them. I am not a person scared of empty threats. I don’t have the habit of simply running away from problems. Instead, I resolve those issues. I do not want to please anyone only for the purpose of securing votes. As I have pledged, my determination is to build a prosperous nation. I will not hesitate to take whatever action is necessary according to my conscience to achieve this target.

“I love my country. I am proud of my country. I have a vision for my country. This is the motherland of all of us. Hence, the time has come for all of us to join hands as productive citizens with the team spirit and fulfilling responsibilities in a disciplined manner in building the prosperous nation we promised to our people,” President Rajapaksa finally observed.

Meanwhile, the President directed all state institutions not to spend any monies on events or publications to mark his first year in office.

In fact, it is learnt that while there was discussion earlier to hold a dinner for governing party ministers and legislators to mark the President’s first anniversary, it was cancelled due to the current situation faced by the country in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The dinner was to be held on Tuesday (17) night.

Instead, the President attended a pirith ceremony at Independence Square where monks are to chant pirith continuously for 21 days to invoke blessings on the country.

President in the House

However, President Rajapaksa made a surprise visit to Parliament last Thursday (19) on the second day of the second reading of the Budget 2021.

The President had arrived at the Parliament Complex at around 11.30 a.m. and was welcomed by Leader of the House Minister Gunawardena.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa takes his seat next to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Parliament, 19 November 2020

The Prime Minister at that time was watching parliamentary proceedings from his office on the second floor and the President had met with the Prime Minister in the office.

The President had then entered the Parliament Chamber at around 11.40 a.m. with the Prime Minister.

This is the first time the President had entered the Parliament Chamber after delivering the throne speech at the inauguration of the ninth Parliament.

After sitting next to the Prime Minister, the President had listened to the speeches delivered by SJB MP Tissa Attanayake and SLPP MPs Shehan Semasinghe and Yadamini Gunawardena.

When Parliament was adjourned for lunch at 12.30 p.m., the President had gone to the restaurant with the Prime Minister and several governing party MPs to have lunch.

After going into the restaurant, the President had telephoned Attanayake and commended him on his speech during the budget debate.

It is learnt that the President had appreciated the points highlighted by Attanayake, saying he was constructive in his criticism and was not vicious, and had said he would personally look into some of the issues raised by Attanayake.

Many parliamentarians had greeted the President, and among them was SJB MP Diana Gamage who voted in favour of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

The President had inquired about Gamage’s wellbeing when she had said she was being reprimanded by her party colleagues.

“That’s how it is. Even I’m getting scolded on FB (Facebook),” the President had responded in a lighter vein.

Several other MPs among the group who agreed with the President said: “You get attacked only because you are working.”

“Let those who want to sling mud do so. We should ignore and carry on with our work,” Prime Minister Rajapaksa had said.

The President had left Parliament at around 1.50 p.m.

To the governing side

Last week saw the two SJB MPs who were suspended from the party after voting in favour of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution being assigned seats in the governing side.

The Chief Opposition Whip had, on 29 October, requested the Speaker of Parliament, in writing, to allocate governing side seats to the nine SJB MPs who were suspended for violating the party decision.

The Speaker had in turn informed the Chief Government Whip of the request and the governing party had then assigned seats for the nine SJB MPs.

However, despite being assigned seats in the governing party side, the nine MPs had to sit in the Opposition side of Parliament since all seats in the governing side are fully occupied.

SJB National List MP Diana Gamage was assigned parliamentary seat number 116.

Johnston Fernando had forwarded a request to the Speaker, and thus it was decided to allocate seats with the ruling party for the two MPs, Parliament Sergeant-at-Arms Narendra Fernando had said earlier last week.

However, since Gamage’s seat was located in the back benches of the governing party side, several SJB MPs had heckled Gamage.

Gamage had also responded saying she hoped all the very best for the SJB to carry out its work.

Sacking Diana

Meanwhile, the SJB last week suspended the membership of National List MP Gamage with immediate effect.

In a letter addressed to Gamage, SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had said the decision was taken after Gamage had voted in favour of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in violation of the party’s decision to vote against the amendment.

Gamage was among a group of Opposition MPs who had voted in favour of the 20th Amendment as well as the clause dealing with dual citizens.

The party had reached a common consensus to vote against the Amendment, which Gamage had defied by voting in favour, Premadasa had highlighted in the letter.

Gamage’s actions have been deemed a violation of the SJB Constitution, and as such, a decision had been taken to suspend her membership with immediate effect.

Premadasa had further said that the decision on the suspension of membership will be conveyed to the Central Working Committee of the SJB as well.

The Central Working Committee will thereafter commence disciplinary action against Gamage, the SJB Leader had added.

However, responding to the letter, Gamage had said the SJB cannot expel her from the party or remove her from the parliamentary seat.

Gamage had told the media that it would not be easy for the SJB to remove her from Parliament and that she would make her case before courts when the matter is taken up.

She had pointed out that former UNP MP Upeksha Swaranamali had supported the Government while holding a seat from the UNP.

Dayasiri in Sajith’s office

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera last Friday (20) was seen walking into Opposition Leader Premadasa’s office in Parliament.

While many initially believed that Jayasekera had visited the Opposition Leader’s office to speak with Premadasa, it was later noticed that Premadasa at the time was in the Parliament Chamber delivering a speech.

However, it was later learnt that Jayasekera had in fact visited the Opposition Leader’s office to congratulate Ravi Jayawardena on his appointment as the Secretary to the Opposition Leader.

Eran’s predicament

Meanwhile, SJB parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne was summoned by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on Monday (16) afternoon.

Wickramaratne was questioned for nearly four hours in relation to a statement he made at a recent press conference regarding custodial deaths of suspects and witnesses.

During the press conference earlier this month, Wickramaratne had questioned the safety of high-profile witnesses, such as the wife of the Easter Sunday bomber Zahran Hashim and former CID Head Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Shani Abeysekara, who are currently in remand custody.

Wickramaratne said he had explained his remarks to the CID when recording the statement for over three hours.

“I explained that I was speaking of upholding the rule of law and ensuring justice prevails through the judicial system when I spoke at the weekly press conference held at the Opposition Leader’s office last week,” Wickremeratne told The Sunday Morning.

He said he had stressed the responsibility of the Government to protect witnesses and suspects held in custody.

“The Government has a duty to protect both witnesses and suspects alike, especially as they may reveal crucial information that could lead to justice being served.”

Wickremeratne was questioned by the CID over comments he had made at a press conference on 12 November.

A fishy affair

SJB MPs seemed to be in the limelight last week with former Minister of Fisheries Development and SJB MP Dilip Wedarachchi catching global attention following his move to eat raw fish in a bid to promote fish sales in the country.

Wedarachchi ate raw fish during a news conference held at the Opposition Leader’s office on Tuesday (17) in order to encourage people to consume fish without the fear of Covid-19 virus on them.

He said the fishing community has been greatly affected and was in a desperate situation, as they had been unable to sell the fish due to fears prevailing among people that fish carry the Covid-19 virus.

“However, I would like to request people not be afraid of consuming fish and that’s the only way we can help the fishing community to overcome this critical situation,” he added.

News outlets across the world including the Daily Mail, The Sun, India Today, Sky News, Deccan Herald, US News, and The Telegraph reported the former Minister’s actions, with some media outlets calling it a “bizarre news conference”.

Following the detection of the Covid-19 cluster from the Peliyagoda Fish Market, fish sales across the country dwindled, as the public feared contracting the virus from fish and seafood.

However, Wedarachchi told the media late last week that his stunt had allayed fears among the public of eating fish and fish sales have seen an increase after his act.