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Editorial

September 9, 2007  Volume 14, Issue 12


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Parliament

           

High drama over tax bills


Sunil Handunnetti, John Amaratunge, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and W.J.M Lokubandara

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti Our Lobby Correspondent

THE government passed five finance bills on Thursday evening amidst stiff resistance by the entire opposition, expressed through fisticuffs and slogan shouting not to further burden the public with debilitating new taxes. But it was the procedural issues concerning the vote taking process that finally took precedence.

In the quicksand politics of today, the UNP, the JVP and the TNA suddenly turned tables on the government during the vote which was initially taken electronically by militantly opposing the passing of the bills, screaming slogans in the parliament well, culminating in UNP’s Mahinda Ratnathileke getting punched by Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage while running away with the Order Paper placed on the Speaker’s table.

High drama

High drama prevailed as the five bills seeking to restructure the tax on motor vehicles, slap a tax on mobile users et al., were taken up for a vote when Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe challenged the Speaker that the House had no power to vote electronically as Standing Orders did not provide for such and they were also not suspended prior to taking the vote.

A harassed Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara cried foul against Wickremesinghe’s objection alleging that Wickremesinghe did not inform at the party leaders meeting that he was to challenge the voting procedure and by way of excuse added, "There is huge media criticism that I am not using the electronic voting system. We are not opposed to technology."

By then, Lokubandara had proceeded with the first reading vote on the first bill to tax the mobile users, completed the committee stage and moved to the third reading.

Calculated move

It was a well-calculated move by the UNP leadership to thwart the bills from becoming law, by objecting to the vote at a stage when a reversal of procedure is also not provided for. The JVP which unusually ganged up with the UNP to defeat the bills began shouting slogans and converging in the middle of the House, mounting pressure, and then a voice vote was taken by the Speaker.

While the government also got activated, their desperation was manifest in the restraint they showed as the bills needed to be passed according to plan.

At this stage, Lokubandara complained that the procedural defect could have been brought to his notice before the vote began but quickly jumped JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake to snap at the chair: "Why should we? It is your job to know the rules and not for us to remind you of their existence."

Exasperated, the vote was proceeded with orally but the real problem emanated from the Speaker’s decision to pass the other four bills. Seeing the militant opposition in the House, with UNP and JVP members shouting themselves hoarse "epa epa badda epa," "epa epa apata epa," Lokubandara announced that he would use his powers and pass the bills as per his wishes.

That led Mahinda Ratnathileke to run away with the Order Paper resulting in both the UNP and government members having a wrestling match right behind the Speaker’s chair with members falling, their clothes coming apart and some having to limp back to their chairs after being kicked in sensitive places.

New procedure

Amidst the brawl, the JVP members mounted the ‘badu epa’ campaign and the Speaker kept on calling each bill — and he passed it sans committee stage — thereby creating a new procedure all by himself!

As he rushed the bills through, violating procedure by missing two stages of passing a bill but claiming he had the powers to do it, some government members continued to engage in fisticuffs, pulling and shoving, while others converged in the męlée to shout "Aye."

Then again though the government certainly had the majority members present inside, it would be still procedurally wrong to consider the bills passed when committee and third reading stages were not even resorted to. At the end, relieved government benches shouted, "janadhipathithumata jayawewa" — perhaps for the new tax regime!

Amunugama gloats

Just like the vote, Thursday’s debate was also volatile. It was Dr. Sarath Amunugama who proposed the five bills and gloated over the fact that some 6.3 million mobile users were in the country thanks to the SLFP’s policy of making available a service to everyone. As the sector diversified, the government saw no evil in imposing a mild tax, noted Amunugama.

This inspired JVP’s Sunil Handunnetti to quip that Togo, an ‘uncivilised’ African nation still in their loincloths, also had access to satellite TV and mobiles, and whether that too was the handy work of the SLFP!

JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake then wanted to know whether making mobiles accessible gave the government some unique right to tax the users to cover up its failure to manage the economy.

While Amunugama declared that the economy was doing well and Sri Lanka has received a great rating, an unconvinced Ravi Karunanayake called it ‘deficit financing’ by a desperate government that did not pass on any benefit to the consumers.

Speaking next, Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera wanted to know why a mini budget was being presented. "Minister Amunugama spoke about the expansion of the mobile phone industry but nothing about the bills. Why ask people to go through all this when privileged brats had Aston Martin super cars," queried he.

Government laundering

The general effort to launder the government by over simplifying matters commenced with Minister Bandula Gunawardena challenging the opposition to vote against the bills if they disliked the contents so much without making a hue and cry about the government’s decision to impose further taxes. "Just oppose. That’s democratic," he said.

Then followed Minister of State Revenue, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya coming up with further excuses. It was as if the entire government had simply forgotten how tax burdened the people are as he went on to say that the government was not bringing in taxes or raising commercial loans in an ad hoc manner but according to a 10 year plan of economic development.

He also did not forget to tear apart the UNP’s ‘Yali Pubudamu Sri Lanka’ when the UNP self-imposed conditions to qualify for aid.

But UNP’s Kabir Hashim objected to such conditions and said nothing could be compared with the government’s folly of borrowing US$ 500 million on commercial terms, and that too on bended knees!

Reminded of Governor Torrington

He also reminded the House of a former British Governor, Torrington, who unrepentantly imposed varying taxes on the Ceylonese public against which the people rebelled. "The current regime wishes to impose taxes in a way reminiscent of Torrington’s commitment to taxing poor people. I think President Rajapakse is leafing through Torrington’s tax book on how to snuff the life out of people," quipped Hashim.

Questioning the purpose of raising the dollar bond, he demanded to know whose infrastructure the government sought to improve — that of the family members’ or the country’s.

Strange logic also emerged when Posts and Telecom Minister Rauf Hakeem spoke. He spoke about levying a tax, with JVP member’s picking holes in his argument consistently. The Minister’s explanation was that the tax won’t hurt too much as the mobile operating companies that were consistently competing with each other would ensure new relief measures.

Highest number of

liquor licences

Enraged by the mounting criticism, when government dissident Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi stood up to speak it was a government chorus of "balla, pawa denna" and many a word considered unparliamentary. While the canine and the bovine were liberally insulted, Sooriyaarachchi stood his ground to say that it was during Rajapakse’s regime that the highest number of liquor licences were issued despite pledges to put an end to the liquor culture.

He said the country’s highest liquor production and liquor imports were recorded in 2006, while government members shouted and booed him from beginning to the end of his speech.

UNP’s Ravi Karunanayake felt that the economy currently was dependent on the taxes, but the government avoided telling the House the projected revenue from levying these taxes. "The reason is that these taxes are for the maintenance of a massive cabinet, to cushion corruption," alleged he, stating that just in 120 hours, the government has managed to cause the rupee to depreciate by Rs. 1.40 against the dollar. "That’s a real achievement," he sniped.

Following him, UNP’s John Amaratunga scoffed that the government feared Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi so much that they could not bear to hear his criticism.

Amaratunga said that the government spoke of added expenditure caused by the war effort and developmental projects but saw no reason to further burden the people when there were other possible measures to raise government revenue.

Slash the cabinet

"Let me tell you how to maximise recovery from Customs and income tax. You sit on those and then pass the burden to the people. Stop taking a 10% commission on everything and slash this cabinet to a manageable 35. That might work wonders," he advised.

Amaratunga was booed as he listed the ‘credentials’ of the government as he saw them, quickly followed by Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle who made the reply speech which contained everything excluding any substantial relevance to the five finance bills before the House.

No compassion

"We agree that prices have gone up but we have managed to keep the essentials available at an affordable price. It is not that we don’t feel their pain," said Fernandopulle.

Then he spoke about mobile users already paying Rs.200 to the service operators. "What’s the difference? Either way it is passed on to the consumer," the Minister said, without batting an eyelid.

Up jumped JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake demanding, "Then tax the mobile company and leave the people alone."

That led to the voting stage when all hell broke loose and when the adopted procedure of voting through the electronic device was challenged by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The House then became a boxing ring with shows and side shows for the next hour while the matter spilled over to Friday morning as well.

Bills not effective in law

The Chief Opposition Whip, Joseph Michael Perera objected to the passing of the bills and said none of them have become effective law and people did not have to pay the taxes as they were not ‘properly passed.’

He wanted to find out why the bills were not included in the Order Paper as unfinished business with the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe stating that Thursday’s proceedings violated the Standing Orders firstly in regard to Item 1, as there was no provision for electronic voting in the Standing Orders. What’s more, they were not suspended to facilitate such an exercise, he added.

Results not announced

It was also opined that in any event the Speaker had not announced the result of the voting of the third reading as required by Standing Orders 42 and 43.

Further procedural sins were listed thereafter. "In respect of Items 2 - 5, the Speaker simply went on to announce that these bills have been passed. There was neither a second reading vote nor a committee stage nor a third reading vote on these bills," he challenged.

There was a certain sense of achievement upon his face as he said that none of the requirements for the passing of the bills as stipulated in the Standing Orders had been observed and therefore the Speaker’s announcement that the bills have been passed was improper.

Not obliged to pay

"This meant, since none of these bills have been properly passed, people are not obliged to pay any taxes or levies in terms of these new bills. They have not become valid law," he noted.

It remains to be seen how the legality of the bills would be dealt with by the government, one that seems to be regularly leafing through Torrington’s book on how to tax people and snuff their lives out.

Relevant Standing Orders

Standing Order 4 (4): Requires paper ballots for the election of the Speaker — to be collected and counted by the Secretary-General of Parliament and the result declared by the Secretary-General.

Standing Order 6: Same procedure applies when electing a Deputy Speaker and Deputy Chairman of Committees.

In all other instances voting has to follow the procedure laid down in Standing Order 42.

By voices i.e. "Ayes" or "Noes" and the result declared by Mr. Speaker.

If the decision is challenged the votes shall be taken by the Secretary General asking each member how he desires to vote.

The Speaker could also call upon members who support or oppose by rising from the allotted seat.


Free show

While members liberally shoved and pulled punches on Thursday evening and blamed it on electronic voting being introduced, there were mini shows as well. Minister Jayatissa Ranaweera fell inelegantly on the flow attempting to secure senior colleague D. M. Jayaratne in the męlée and was helped back to his feet by concerned colleagues.

In a crumpled state, Ranaweera was seen adjusting his sarong offering a free show to those who watched the fracas from the galleries.

If Ranaweera’s sarong ceremony was unplanned, there was planned sarong raising by another.

As the House finally adjourned on Thursday, there was UNP Hambantota Member Dilip Wedaarachchi raising his sarong in a village style display of mock anger. But he raised it so high his pink coloured underwear was visible to all.

The sarong issues were such that a cheeky UNP legislator was heard suggesting that parliament should make it compulsory for all legislators in national costume to wear boxer shorts — just in case they decide to let it down or raise it high giving others a painful view of their badly maintained parts!

Electronically challenged

The electronic voting on Thursday brought out the worst in our legislators. Not only were they trying to press the neighbouring desk’s buttons to cast hora votes but were also technologically challenged.

Several opposition members failed to ‘activate’ the system correctly to ‘vote against’ prompting the staff to repeat instructions. This, after instructions were issued a day before on how to electronically vote and the Speaker having read instructions before taking the vote.

Podi tricks

The legislature maintained a high sense of drama last week, so much so that some of the older journalists were quoting a former prime minister to best describe the political lunacy that prevailed.

Soon after Thursday’s drama of opposing electronic voting for violating Standing Orders, a seasoned government minister was heard saying that everything was done for political reasons and quoted the late W. Dayanayake as having said, "Politics means podi tricks."

COPE report a headache

The second COPE report is causing heartache to its members who now have to defend the contents of the report and who also feel that the report should not become a redundant document but should lead to concrete action.

The House has now mandated the Speaker to refer some 13 institutions investigated into by COPE to the Bribery Commission for action. They feel that if the report is not used for valid anti-corruption action, it is best to fold the entire COPE whose functions the President does not appear to approve of!

Redefining terrorism

An amendment to the interpretation of the word "terrorism" under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) to include any act compelling a government change caused a furore in parliament on Tuesday with the government insisting that the definition has come into operation in December 2006 and rejecting requests for amendment.

When urged for amendment, Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickremanayake said he could not have the Gazette amended but agreed with the concerns expressed about the section possibly being misused by the authorities.

The controversial interpretation was brought to the notice of the House by JVP Parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

Besides the regular interpretation, the Gazette now includes "…or compelling the governmental change, or compelling the government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to do or abstain from doing any act, and includes any other unlawful activity which advocates or propagates such unlawful act."

Siyambalapitiya to deputise

One of the good things that flowed from last week’s dispute over President Rajapakse conducting consultative committee meetings at Temple Trees is the appointment of Ranjith Siyambalapitiya as deputy minister of finance.

The UNP on Tuesday stoically opposed the continuous holding of CC meetings at a non-conducive venue and queried from the Speaker whether he has authorised the holding of such at an alternative venue.

The members of these committees also lose their membership if they are absent on three occasions, and the Speaker on Thursday agreed that it amounted to a violation of parliamentary privilege. The committees of ministries coming under the President are chaired by the deputy minister or in the absence of a deputy, the prime minister.

Though regularly compelled to submit finance bills and to make speeches on all money matters, Siyambapalitiya only held non cabinet rank for State Revenue and Finance. Now the matter has been sorted, and the Speaker paid a glowing tribute to the President for respecting parliamentary tradition.

However, dispute resolution has come the quiet way, with Siyambalapitiya’s appointment being gazetted quietly. At least one consultative committee can be chaired by a deputy now as per rules.

 


 


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