Dissent is not disloyalty

Monday, 23 December 2013 00:33 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presence ahead of the final vote passing the Budget for 2014 had little impact on what was essentially a foregone conclusion, but his appeal for the Opposition to stop undermining the Government’s economic policies and present a united front was certainly an original appeal of sorts. On Friday, Parliament passed the 2014 Budget by a 95-vote majority, approving a plan to reduce its fiscal deficit to a 36-year low of 5.2% of gross domestic product amid Opposition allegations of economic data manipulation. The Budget was passed with 155 votes for and 60 against in the Legislature, in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling party has over a two-thirds majority. Rajapaksa, wrapping up the 24-day Budget debate, said Sri Lanka’s debt-to-GDP ratio had now declined to 75% from around 80% last year and defended borrowing as it was focused on infrastructure development and therefore justified. The country aims to reduce the debt to 65% of GDP by 2016.The Government aims to cut the 2014 fiscal deficit to an ambitious 5.2% of GDP, its lowest since 1977, from an estimated 5.8% this year, the level the Government committed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which fully disbursed a $ 2.6 billion loan in July last year. Throughout the Budget debate, Opposition legislators claimed that the Government has been manipulating economic data to show a rosy picture of the island nation’s $ 59 billion economy. Rajapaksa’s ruling party rejected the allegation. Sri Lanka targets over 7.5% annual economic growth in each of the next three years from this year’s revised down target of a minimum 7.2%. With such lofty goals in sight perhaps Rajapaksa’s appeal for support from the Opposition was reasonable. But there are several points that seem to have escaped his notice. For collaboration between the Government and the Opposition to be possible, there must exist an environment where dissent is allowed, and dare it be said, accepted and acted upon. Despite the Government’s grandiose schemes there are many points of concern including an inadequate investment environment (Sri Lanka’s Doing Business Ranking went into freefall in 2013), blatant corruption and mismanagement over which little if anything is done, quashing of freedom of speech where even slapstick stage plays are banned and development policies that are deliberately skewered away from inclusivity. The economy does not stand alone in a vacuum. It is deeply linked to law and order, transparency, good governance and civic rights. While Rajapaksa’s speech writer was probably penning his latest address to Parliament, its Indian counterpart passed the Lokpal Bill that provides unprecedented power to fight corruption. Rajapaksa, in contrast has steadfastly refused to even consider basic Right to Information legislation, effectively undermining the fight against corruption. The centralisation of power within the Government, clearly reflected within the Budget, also hampers formation of a level playing field. For unity to exist, the views and more importantly the issues of all stakeholders must be meaningfully listened to and addressed. Yet there are glaring discrepancies between promises and action, particularly regarding minorities in Sri Lanka. Therefore, Rajapaksa’s request for Tamil Parliamentarians to share a platform with the Government is hollow and likely to remain so until equal rights exist between all communities. The economy is central to such aspirations, therefore the idea that dissent is disloyalty must be dispelled.