D-Day today for democracy!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011 01:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

TODAY marks what is perhaps the most crucial day since the end of the war in the name of democracy when the contentious takeover bill comes up for voting in Parliament amidst at least three cases filed against it and mounting protests from the clergy, private sector, legal profession and the Opposition.

Ever since the first news of the Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilised Assets Bill went public, there has been a huge upheaval. Whilst the Opposition was quick to respond, after careful study of the implications of the new Bill, widely labelled as draconian, the private sector and the clergy joined the fray.

For starters, the Bill itself came to light as an urgent legislation with the Cabinet referring it to the Supreme Court for its determination on whether it is in conflict with the Constitution or not. Whilst the Government cited the reference to the Supreme Court as part of its own accountability, it also faced flak for rushing it through in secrecy.

Even the ill-fated Private Pension Bill was cleared by the Supreme Court but eventually the Government backed out. In this case, however, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Government has stood firm, which saw the Bill tabled in Parliament yesterday and coming up for debate and likely voting today. This is in spite of the Bill being challenged in Court via two fundamental rights applications, dates of hearing of both yet undetermined.

The common criticism against the Government is, ‘Why rush the legislation sans proper stakeholder discussion?’ However, the Government which is still riding high on popularity that reached  a zenith with the end of the war, has maintained that the takeover idea in principle was disclosed in the 2011 Budget presented last year. If this was so, then it has taken the Government exactly one year to get the legislation ready.  A Minister was quoted as saying that the Government was keen to get the Bill approved before the 2012 Budget presentation, which is in a fortnight’s time.

It is certain that the Government didn’t anticipate the growing protest against the Bill. One reason could be the scant public outcry over the Government’s full takeover of several ventures such as SriLankan Airlines and the main LPG supplier (former Shell Gas Lanka). The Government also rode on positive public sentiment over the revestiture of previously-privatised Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation to the State. Some of these enterprises have improved their performance or are on course but the Government cannot deny the fact that it has an unwinding list of entities which are in serious trouble despite being State owned and managed.

Whilst there is consensus that underutilised State assets and enterprises need to be revived lest their burden on the public continues into the future, the Government needs to show more sincerity and prove credibility of its intent. As the UNP pointed out, shoving new legislation down the public’s throat is certainly not the best course. Other than bringing in the new Act, there have been conflicting views on whether the Government cannot effectively deal with idling land previously handed over to the private sector. The Opposition as well as the business chambers are in agreement that if such enterprises are defunct, then the State should look at maximising return from such assets – but only after exploring all existing options under the Common Law. The Government is insistent that the new Bill is the answer. The inclusion of entities which are going concerns, however, has drawn stiff criticism though the Government doesn’t want to budge. Here too, the Government’s argument is that these enterprises haven’t performed at their best or served their true purpose. This miserably exposes the skeletons in the Government’s cupboard of existing State-owned enterprises.

Today’s issue features a letter written to the Speaker by public interest activist Nihal Ameresekera, which superimposes the people’s franchise as supreme and not any other organ in a state. Whether sanity will prevail is questionable, but there is certainly credence in the Opposition assertion that the Bill deprives economic freedom, could destroy economic value and deprive much-needed new investment to generate the high growth that Sri Lanka needs in the post-war era. The Government argues that the Bill indeed aims to achieve same.

Most analysts feel that in content and spirit, the Bill appears ill-timed and originating from a lack of proper consultation. Whether passed or not, the Bill has already done much damage to the spirit of Sri Lanka Inc. Building on from this situation will impose fresh challenges to trust and confidence among all stakeholders.