Politicos fire up final session of Economic Summit 2013

Wednesday, 17 July 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Govt. politicos hail post-war development as phenomenal
  • Breakdown in rule of law will dampen economic prospects: Opposition
  • Unemployment figures are low because of massive State sector employment or jobless growth: Sumanthiran
  • Faiszer-Harsha trade barbs over which government has done the most for people outside Western Province
  • Sumanthiran alludes to Sinhala hardline groups having powerful backers
  • Faiszer thanks TNA MP for standing up for Muslims, but wishes TNA had also condemned LTTE terror
 By Dharisha Bastians The curtain fell on the Ceylon Chamber’s 14th Sri Lanka Economic Summit last week with a special session for Parliamentarians who would address the economic challenges discussed over the three-day conference from varying political perspectives. Ruling party legislators locked horns with Opposition members on how best to tackle the problems with ‘Rebalancing the Economy,’ on which theme the 2013 summit was based. The vibrant panel discussion to close the summit sessions hosted Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakody and Deputy Minister of Investment Promotion Faiszer Mustapha representing the Government. From the Opposition benches, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Dr. Harsha De Silva represented the main opposition United National Party, M.A. Sumanthiran represented the Tamil National Alliance while trade unionist Wasantha Samarasinghe stood in for the JVP. Panel Moderator and former Public Enterprise Reform Commission Chairman Mano Tittawela led the diverse political grouping in a lively, no-holds barred discussion that brought issues of fiscal discipline, investment climate, good governance, participatory governance and corruption to the fore. Legislators exchanged views and traded barbs about how to manage Sri Lanka’s economy during the extended Q&A session at the Oak Room of the Cinnamon Grand. Government lawmakers harped on post-war growth and infrastructure development as showing phenomenal promise but insisted on more time to deliver on the economic peace dividend. Their counterparts from across the aisle claimed an over-large state sector was stifling private sector growth and complained that a breakdown of the rule of law was dampening investor confidence. Economic progress Opening the session the Deputy Speaker said that the Government had managed to keep inflation in single digits for the past 50 months. “Unemployment is at 4.9%. The country has shown consistent economic growth in the three years since the end of the war of 6-7%, after the 8% in the first year following the end of the conflict,” he said. “Do we wish there was more? Of course we do. But already so much has gone right,” Weerakody observed in his five minute introduction. Following up from the Deputy Speaker’s comments, Deputy Minister and Attorney-at-Law Faiszer Mustapha came out all guns blazing, saying that if terrorism had not been defeated, there would be no economy to balance or rebalance. “Peace alone is huge progress, but of course we have to move forward from there,” Mustapha said. The Deputy Minister said the Government viewed economic progress from the prism of the people. “The Opposition faults us for taking loans but when they fail to realise is that the Government has taken this debt in order to facilitate development for the people. And at the people’s forum, at successive elections, this Government has been consistently successful,” he said in an emphatic opening statement. Mustapha said that with Sri Lanka reaching mid-income status as a country, it was no longer eligible for concessionary loans and grants. “What option does the Government have but to borrow commercially in order to fund development projects?” the Deputy Minister charged. Both Government Members said Sri Lanka’s economic prospects were affected by the global economic meltdown that had stemmed the flow of investments and earnings from exports into the country. Development Going one step further Mustapha proclaimed that the present Government was the only one to have taken development to the periphery. “Every other government has focused on the Western Province, believing that this is where the votes are. This Government has reached out to other parts of the island,” he claimed. The Deputy Minister’s remarks drew a sharp response from UNP National List Legislator and Economist Dr. Harsha De Silva, who shot down Mustapha’s remarks reminding the panellists and the audience that it was Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake who had started the Gal Oya project in the remote Ampara District and the UNP’s Ranasinghe Premadasa who took garment manufacturing factories to every part of the country. “Members of this Government go around making statements like these and that becomes accepted because they remain unchallenged, but let me tell you that you will not be unchallenged here,” De Silva shot at Mustapha. Good governance TNA National List Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran said the three cornerstones of economic development were “good governance, good governance and good governance.” He said that participatory governance was lacking in the Government’s current development drive that lacked public participation. “I am glad the Chamber opted to make “rebalancing” the theme of this year’s summit because it means that someone has realised that there is something askew with the economy at present,” the Attorney-at-Law said. In response to the Deputy Speaker’s comment about unemployment figures falling, the TNA politician charged that Sri Lanka was in fact experiencing ‘jobless growth’, with the employment in the public sector growing exponentially. Illustrating the point, Sumanthiran said that over the past month the Government had been doling out State jobs to people in the Northern Province, even as the region gears up for its first major poll post-war. He emphasised that good governance practices were indelibly linked to rebalancing the economy and pointed to the recent “trial” to oust the country’s Chief Justice as being a major dampener of confidence in the country’s legal system and respect for rule of law principles. “We watched that trial. The Government MPs in the PSC summoned 16 witnesses at 5:30 p.m. By 8 a.m. the next day, deliberations had been completed and a report tabled in Parliament,” he explained. The TNA MP asked what chance ordinary investors or entrepreneurs stand if such a verdict could be delivered against the country’s top judge. The situation did not bode well for attracting investment into the country, he claimed. Rebalance strategies UNP National List Parliamentarian Dr. Harsha De Silva charged that the State sector was growing at the expense of the private sector, with growth in State sector credit and declines in private sector credit. The former World Bank economist said that what was required to confront economical challenges was to rebalance attitudes. “This State, State, State mindset will not help to sustain growth. The Government is trying to print their way to prosperity by relaxing monetary policy,” he claimed. With regard to recent mega infrastructure projects, De Silva said that the question was not whether Sri Lanka needed more airports but whether they were a priority at this juncture. “Have cost-benefit analyses been performed? Experts at this forum said yesterday that the dire need was for increased state spending on science and technology and research and development. So the way forward is to rebalance strategies,” he said. Rule of law UNP Kurunegala District MP and Attorney at Law Dayasiri Jayasekera explained that the deteriorating rule of law situation was killing the country’s investment prospects and tourism industry. The fact that so many politicos with links to the ruling regime were being implicated in some of the most publicised criminal activities put a severe dampener on investor confidence. “Over the last few weeks, several countries have issued travel advice against Sri Lanka. There is a fear growing that foreigners entering this country are not safe,” he said. JVP MP Wasantha Samarasinghe also participated in the panel discussion, making a case for a socialist economy and claiming that the Government was engaging in casino economics that gave 13-year tax holidays to casino kings, thereby depriving the public of much-needed revenue. Corruption During the Q&A session when Tittawela solicited written questions from the audience and delegates, the Government politicos were queried about State sector corruption. “All governments have battled with corruption. But it appears that corruption now is unprecedented. Of course this could be a result of sudden development as well, but do you believe that enough is being done to really tackle it?” Tittawella posed to the UPFA MPs. Deputy Speaker Weerakody admitted that corruption was a problem that was plaguing the incumbent regime, but noted that there was a time it was much worse. “There was a time in the early 1990s when we won the Southern Provincial Council election, the Chief Minister from the SLFP was not permitted to take his oaths – we have come a long way from there,” Weerakody claimed. He said that it was unfortunate that in every party and every government, there were bad eggs and they had to be dealt with. The Government, the Deputy Speaker said was doing everything it could to manage the issue with President Mahinda Rajapaksa taking a tough stance against corrupt politicos. “Certainly, we would all admit that there is much left to be done to address the issue,” he said. Prioritising projects Another question posed to Government politicians at the panel was whether they believed that there was enough public consultation when officials were prioritising projects. “So much priority is being given to the beautification of Viharamahadevi Park at Town Hall. Why is equal attention not being paid to the Pamankada Junction, which is in a terrible state?” Tittawela said, reading out the question from an audience member. In response, Deputy Minister Mustapha quipped that if the Government had undertaken to reconstruct the junction in question, people would accuse them of neglecting the Viharamahadevi Park.  “I am not saying that the Pamankada Junction should be neglected, but projects are chosen on a case-by-case basis by the agency concerned and they will eventually get to the next problem,” he said. Halal controversy With the session running into extended time, a question was posed to the politicians about the recent Halal controversy. Tittawela put the question to TNA MP Sumanthiran, who said that it was clear by now who the hands were behind the groups spreading anti-Muslim sentiment. “It is well known, especially in the present circles, who started the Halal controversy and how it was resolved. It is also apparent from the fact that these groups are permitted to vandalise and intimidate with no consequences that they have powerful backers,” Sumanthiran said, expressing regret that the flames of communal hatred were being fanned again.  In response, Mustapha sniped that while he was grateful to Sumanthiran for standing up for his community, it was a pity he did not see a contradiction in the fact that his party once did the bidding of a terrorist outfit.  Joining the fray, UNP MP De Silva quipped, “Don’t forget, originally you represented his community,” referring to Mustapha’s political origins in the Ceylon Workers’ Congress.' Pix by Upul Abayasekara