Mr Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to speak in support of the Budget for 2012 put forward by the Government. More than two years have passed since the conclusion of the conflict which held back the development of this country. Since then we have had a series of elections, the last of which was concluded a couple of months back. The results have shown immense satisfaction in most of the country with what government has achieved during this period, but we have also got to register that in a few places the people have indicated that we must do better.

I believe this budget makes it clear that, as far as the North of this country is concerned, as well as other places that have suffered deprivation in the past, government intends to pursue the policy of rapid infrastructural development without which we cannot promote the equitable prosperity at which we aim. For too long more distant areas were not properly connected with the rest of the country, which inhibited the connectivity, social as well as economic, that would have facilitated even development. The massive amounts dedicated to capital expenditure in select Ministries for next year makes clear our determination to enhance opportunities for all our people.

There is no doubt that uneven development contributed significantly to the resentments that burst into revolution three times in the last half century. Though in the North these resentments were also coloured by what seemed unjust policies with regard to language and education and public sector recruitment, we must also register the similarities between the motivations of youngsters from all areas who took to arms. In both cases we needed to prevent continuing anarchy but, once terror was overcome, we had to concentrate on removing the grievances that had been expressed in such violent form.

That social ideal was the foundation on which His Excellency the President based the Budget he presented to us yesterday. It is no accident that the first measure he enunciated was the provision of additional funding to develop a trilingual society, through upgrading training facilities for teachers and also through new types of telecommunication facilities.

Training and technology are key words for a society moving forward. But immediately after these symbols of a new era were mentioned, the Opposition, not I think coincidentally, retreated into its customary primitive forms of rote disruption that make clear its incapacity to learn or to modernize. I must register however that the representatives of those who had suffered deprivation in the past, the Tamil National Alliance as well as the last representatives of the old JVP, remained behind and behaved with dignity. I hope this indicates their determination to contribute, through responsible and constructive criticism rather than infantile posturing, to the new era of development with equity that is being ushered in.

Mr Speaker, the imaginative manner in which education and training are being planned is a highlight of the Budget. Whilst making clear the primary responsibility of the Provincial administration for social services such as health and education, the President’s speech emphasized the need for more and better teachers in key subjects such as maths and science and IT and languages. He also affirmed the policy of school based recruitment, given that the current system has failed for half a century and more to provide students in deprived areas with teachers for essential subjects.

Equally importantly, His Excellency made clear the need for upgrading vocational training, and removing the current archaic distinction between academic training and life skills. The philosophy behind this, that all of us have strengths that must be appreciated and encouraged, is another fundamental principle that will help us move forward. The application of that principle to the problems that have caused conflict in the past is most welcome, as is the emphasis in this Budget on segments of society that have suffered unduly in the past.

This approach has contributed to one of the most imaginative, if long overdue, measures that was mentioned. The determination to prevent the waste, of money as well as human capital, that our current sentencing policy represents is most welcome. The impressive work done with former combatants has taught us the benefits of treating those who have erred through social circumstances rather than criminality as assets rather than liabilities. The provision of work and training for such individuals, instead of the deadening if not corrupting expensive incarceration imposed on them previously, will help them as well as society.

The Budget, Mr Speaker, makes it clear that the people of this country are an asset to be cherished and developed. The same goes for our physical environment. The plans to conserve old buildings, to develop new archaeological sites in areas previously neglected, to revitalize old crafts, all underline the faith in this country and its potential that we could not affirm for so long.

This innovative and exciting approach however requires skilful and committed administration. In this regard it is vital that we also upgrade our public service, so that we can promote effective implementation of these plans. In that regard I was pleased to see that the allocation for Capacity Development in the Ministry of Public Administration has been increased from Rs 65 million to Rs 137 million. We need to ensure however that this money is well spent, and that training develops problem solving and decision making skills, and not just the ability to absorb financial and administrative regulations and use them as an excuse for doing nothing. The Honourable Member for Colombo who opened this debate talked about slowness in the public service and even suggested this might be a form of sabotage. I have long learnt never to assume conspiracy where incompetence is explanation enough, but he has a point in that we really must speed up our decision making processes, and also empower staff to understand issues expeditiously and make assessments and respond in a systematic and timely manner. Better language skills, of both comprehension and self-expression, are vital for this, and our failure to demand reports and discuss them must be remedied.

Mr Speaker, we also need to raise levels of accountability and transparency, so that our administrators will not only understand the public purposes of public positions and public funding, but will also appreciate the need to plan carefully and monitor results. In that regard I would suggest that in future we also have more information in the documents presented to Parliament when the Budget comes before us. It would for instance help us to understand more precisely the impact of government policies and practices if the budget figures gave us not only the allocations of previous years but also actual spending. We need to know which areas are performing well, and which require improvement.

We also need to move towards new forms of delivery for the many services that will be provided. One of the great dangers of a caring society, which this Budget emphatically affirms, is that it turns into a paternalistic one which limits diversity. In that regard I welcome His Excellency’s determination not to go back to the statist policies of the 60s and 70s. I was amused in this regard that the Honourable Member from Colombo, who is the latest convert to the extreme Conservatism of his leader, declared that this government was benefiting Sinhala traders at the expense of the minorities. He has evidently forgotten the claim of his leader, in his Poujadist chauvinistc phase some years back, when he accused the nationalism of the Bandaranaike governments as having destroyed small Sinhalese businessmen while allowing Tamil traders to flourish. He made this claim in what seemed a justification of the racist attacks on Tamils that his government encouraged, declaring that Tamils had not suffered so much then as Sinhalese businessmen had done because of nationalization.

Unthinking nationalization benefits no one, but neither does unthinking privatization. His Excellency was right then in also rejecting categorically the laissez faire excesses of the post-Senanayake UNP government, the cynical assertion that the robber barons should be allowed to flourish. The idea that capitalism on its own will always have a trickle down effect is nonsense, which is why liberalism requires strong social interventions to ensure a level playing field. This is totally different to what is termed neo-liberalism, but is more properly associated with the neo-conservatism of the IDU into which the UNP is now being absorbed lock, stock and barrel.

Government, Mr Speaker, needs then to protect as well as to facilitate, to ensure social services that will promote equality of opportunity, to provide infrastructure that will maximize fulfillment of opportunities. Maintaining a balance is not always easy, which is why at different historical stages liberalism emphasizes different priorities. Always however it stresses the potential of individuals, which is why governments must, as this Budget so clearly does, encourage imagination and initiative, and ensure education and training to allow these full play.

The Budget talks of measures to encourage investment and private sector involvement in many areas, but we need in particular to develop a range of training options, in academic as well as vocational education, for administrators as well as educationists. In taking forward the many suggestions with regard to agriculture and land use, which will I hope include emphasis on sustainable development and eco-friendly practices, we need to make maximum use of professional and technical training from many sources. And for better results in the public sector, we need to work together with other countries that have already made the transition from poverty to strong economies, as His Excellency noted. Best practices in countries that have similar histories in the post-colonial period should be studied, to promote better formulation and implementation of public policies.

Mr Speaker, this Budget is presented at a time of transition, when this country is poised to take off into the prosperous pluralistic future that the conflicts of the last quarter century precluded. Those conflicts in turn sprang from the extremism of the very different social and economic perspectives that His Excellency mentioned. Now that we are back to equilibrium, we need to innovate boldly whilst ensuring essential support for those in need. The Budget provides us with the framework on which we can build, and I hope even the most hopeless members of the Opposition will not begrudge the country the brilliant future it deserves.

Daily News 24 November 2011 –