20A comes to Parliament | Daily News

20A comes to Parliament

More questions than answers remain as the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution (20A) went to Parliament for the first reading in the midst of varying opinions by political as well as civil society representatives .

Justice Minister Ali Sabry PC presented the Bill in Parliament yesterday on behalf of the Government amidst the interruptions from the Opposition.The Opposition MPs wore stickers and held placards saying “No to destructive 20A”.

The Amendment seeks to do away with the 19th Amendment (19A) except for a few Clauses, practically returning to the status quo that prevailed prior to 2015. Political observers point out the balance of power will tilt towards the Executive and the legislative, judicial and institutional organs will undergo significant changes under the 20A.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been firm at last week’s Cabinet meeting that he needs a free hand to deliver what the people expect from him and that he perceives the 19th Amendment as a constitutional barrier to achieve that end. His position had been that the 20A would be a transitional amendment and a new constitution could attend to all the concerns raised.

Putting the doubts on who would take the responsibility for drafting the 20A to rest once and for all, the President said in no uncertain terms that he takes its full responsibility. He was of the opinion that the people, with their resounding mandate, have expressed their desire to see the back of the 19the Amendment.

Petitioning time starts

It was no secret that there were conflicting opinions within the Government itself on the proposed Bill and its political allies wanted some of its Sections dropped. It was in this wake that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a nine-member committee chaired by Education Minister and Constitutional Expert Prof G.L.Peiris to study the proposed changes. Its report was handed over to the PM last week, but its content was not yet available in the public domain.

Minister Udaya Gammanpila, who was a member of the said committee, told the Mahanayake Theras when he called on them last week in Kandy that the Audit Service should not be weakened and that he was not in favour of removing its powers to audit companies with more than 50 per cent stake to the Government. He said this point was included in the report.

Another Committee Member Minister Wimal Weerawansa openly registered his opposition to the removal of the Clause that prevents dual citizens from contesting the Parliamentary or Presidential Elections. When this matter came up at the Cabinet meeting it was reported that Ministers Gammanpila, Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara spoke in favour of retaining the restriction, while Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Rohitha Abeygunawardena and S. M. Chandrasena counter-argued.

Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told the last week’s Cabinet press briefing that it was agreed to present the 20A in Parliament in its current shape and accommodate any further amendments at the Committee Stage (third reading) after debating it in the House.

A drawback of this approach is that the citizenry will not be able to know what contentious Clauses will remain and what will be shelved until the last minute. It was barely a month ago that PM Rajapaksa, speaking at the Parliament’s orientation programme, reminded that every minute detail in the Constitution, even a comma or a full stop, matters to the people’s lives. It is in this spirit, legislative making process, especially that of making the country’s supreme law, should be above-board and transparent.

With the tabling of the 20A in Parliament, doors are now open for political parties, civil society activists and any concerned citizen to petition to the Supreme Court within seven days. The main Opposition Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has already stated its intent on challenging the validity of certain provisions of the 20A Bill including the Clause that enables the President to dissolve Parliament one year after a General Election. Several other parties and civil society organizations are likely to follow suit.

Exciting days ahead

A legal battle on the constitutionality of the 20th Amendment will ensue at the Hulftsdorp premises as legal luminaries representing the petitioners and respondents make their submissions in the coming weeks. The Supreme Court can take up to three weeks to conclude the hearing and inform its judgement to the Speaker.

The Court verdict will shed light into some specific changes the 20A will undergo in the third reading. The Government looks forward to take up the 20A for debate in Parliament early November before the presentation of its maiden Budget. Going by the current political developments, political analysts believe that the month of November could see the first few crossovers of the new Parliament.

Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) Leader Mano Ganesan told the media over the weekend that several MPs of his Party and several MPs of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) were in discussion with the top rung of the ruling party. This could be a contingency plan of the Government to make sure that the 20A would sail through Parliament quite effectively. It was reported that SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara had warned the SJB members against supporting the 20A after learning about some behind the scenes discussions.

Meanwhile, United National Party (UNP) new Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene, issuing a lengthy statement, said that the UNP would “wage a ground battle” against the 20A. He complained that the proposed Amendment reverses the hardly won democratic gains of the country and suppresses the people’s rights.

Ironically, in a political scenario where the UNP has no say in Parliament, its political involvement has indeed been reduced to “ground level”. One and half months since the Election, it has been unable to name its nominee for the one and only National List seat it managed to secure in Parliament.

Coconut prices

In an entirely a different political scene, ‘Coconut, Kithul, Palmyrah and Rubber Cultivation Promotion and Related Industrial Product Manufacturing and Export Diversification’ State Minister Arundika Fernando spoke to the media atop a coconut tree on soaring coconut prices last week.

The State Minister climbed a coconut tree at his home garden in Dankotuwa with the help of a ‘coconut tree climbing machine’ manufactured by a person in Warakapola amidst the presence of provincial media personnel as well as the Ministry’s own media.

The price of a coconut has shot up to about Rs.100 in the market. Certainly, the State Minister’s bizarre action or what he said atop the tree was of little help to solve the problem.

“We hope to minimize post-harvest losses of coconuts taken for domestic use, while promoting coconut cultivation as much as possible. The long term solution to the shortage was expanding the cultivation and we hope to take several short term measures too to bring down the prices,” Fernando said atop the tree after plucking a few coconuts, but he did not elaborate what his short term plans were.

If not for stealing the media attention, the State Minister’s action made little sense. One could say his intention was to test the new coconut tree climbing machine, but he could have got that done by a real coconut plucker.

About two weeks ago, President Rajapaksa, in a meeting with the State Ministers to review the scope and role of the recently established State Ministries, asked them to “take their plans to the ground without having them in files”. One may even feel that State Minister Fernando has taken those words literally.

“Strategies and plans are useless if they are confined only to their files and folders. You have to take them to the ground and make them a reality. It is the key role of a State Minister,” the President emphasized.

Suggesting a few ideas to improve coconut production, the President added, “We permitted ‘Govi Jana Seva’ Centres to cultivate other crops in barren lands.They can also plant coconut trees in them. There are a number of barren lands along the Southern Expressway. If coconut trees were planted in these lands, people will get the immediate impression that the respective Minister is actually doing some work. The Ministries have a long term vision, but at the same time there are plenty of things that could be done in a short time.”