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