Lend the private sector an ear

Private sector players have been openly critical of the proposed new Tourism Act, taking umbrage at the narrowing down of private sector participation in industry governing bodies. The overall thrust of the call for a new Act has been the State’s contention that the existing Act has not had the desired effectiveness, and that the private sector’s participation has blocked the potential for progression.

As with any new legislation, timing matters as much as consideration over whether it is, indeed, necessary, and whether it is the right solution to the problem being addressed. Policy upheavals can often be a complex solution to something that can be easier fixed by better implementation of existing policy. The desire of incumbent politicians to leave their footprint on important legislation may sometimes fail to consider the breadth of work involved and the consequent costs. Too often, a well-considered amendment to existing enactments is a far more effective response.

Some legislation takes years to draft, and may even go through successive governments before finally becoming law. The present Tourism Act was one such piece of legislation, drafted over years of stakeholder consultations before coming into effect in 2007. Any evaluation of the Act must consider the fact that it has been in force during a time when the tourism industry was propelled to the heady successes it enjoyed post-War and pre-Covid.

Public-private partnership, while a balancing act, is necessary for successful policy design and implementation. In some industries at least – most certainly among them the tourism industry – private sector knowhow and expertise far outweigh the skills and knowledge residing with the Government alone. Thus, finding a way of working together is in both parties’ benefit, and in the greater interest of the national economy.

This isn’t to suggest that private sector participation is always rosy. The most common downside of private sector participation in policy implementation is the influence leveraged by a handful of powerful personalities. Historically however, it is those associations with strong leaders that have amassed influence and driven change within the industries they represent. While the private sector, by design, is more dynamic and responsive and modern, in its participation within industry collectives, even the private sector has the potential to adopt a backward, ineffective mindset.

In the final equation, the effectiveness of any proposed legislation rests on the matter of how well it considers the interests of key stakeholders; if there is opposition from the private sector, experts, and industry veterans, then it is in the country’s interests to reach consensus. Drafting effective law takes real consideration of multiple interests and suitable representation. 

Take for example the proposed ban on chemical fertiliser in “the near future”: it is vital that those whose livelihood is agriculture be consulted on the availability, supply, and use of suitable alternatives, and the impact of the switch on their yields.

Ineffective, ill-considered, rushed-through-for-whatever-reasons policies serve no one’s interests. The last thing Sri Lanka needs is the uncertainty and indiscipline wrought by policy paralysis, which could very well sour the tenuous relationship between the State and private business.