Presidency 18Sri Lanka Cricket appeared recently before the Committee on Public Enterprises, which is perhaps the only institution in Parliament to have had some effect over the last four years. It could do more, if the Speaker only convened the Committee on Standing Orders, but sadly the Speaker seems to have decided that it is not his business to strengthen Parliament. Instead he too seems ready to jump on the bandwagon on those who wish to abolish the Executive Presidency. That would be disastrous in the current situation but he, like many others, does not seem to understand that an Executive based in a Parliament which has no independent status would be equally lacking in transparency and accountability. And an Executive which has neither professionalism nor collegiality cannot be created simply by moving back to the Westminster model.

But I cannot expect anyone who took an interest in Parliament only after J R Jayewardene had denigrated it beyond measure to understand what a Parliament should really be like. The President does, but I think only he and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Vasudeva Nanayakkara remain in active politics of those who were in Parliament before 1977  (I do not count the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons). Fortunately we have a couple of people with political understanding based on previous generations, such as the Chief Government Whip. And recently an even younger parliamentarian with statesman potential, Vasantha Senanayake, has proposed some changes which would save both the country and the President from the abyss into which we are staring.

The manner in which Sri Lanka Cricket has run amuck typifies the need for greater transparency and accountability. Arjuna Ranatunge, for whom my respect has grown given his regular attendance and thoughtful contributions to COPE, pointed out that SLC’s current disastrous financial situation arose from massive expenditure on three stadiums, including the new one in Hambantota. He also established what was obviously corruption in the manner in which the contrast for telecasting rights had been given to the Carlton Sports Network at a time when his brother Nishantha was involved in both institutions. Nishantha’s plaintive defence that he had recused himself from the decision making process rang hollow, given the obvious bad faith of the Marketing Manager who functioned under him, who tried to throw the blame on Asanga Seneviratne, who roundly denied this.

The appalling nature of the situation came home to me in a private conversation with Arjuna Ranatunge, who told me that the President had wanted a stadium in Hambantota, but he had responded that state resources would be better spent in developing a few grounds so that the younger generation would improve. I was delighted by this response, because it is in line with what I have been saying about the North, that human resources development is more important than cement, which has it seems led Basil Rajapaksa to assume I am opposed to the government. He cannot realize that not voting with the government on a single matter of principle, when one is not in the executive, is common parliamentary practice, and that governments benefit from having backbenchers who point out how government policy would be better fulfilled

But Basil does not listen, as I told the President once when he wanted me to talk to him about strengthening the role of local authorities – a pledge which is in his manifesto, but about which hardly anything has been done in the last few years. I realized the uselessness of advising Basil in terms of principles when he purported to consult the Parliamentary group at the first consultation meeting held in a West Coast Hotel, and then told us, when suggestions were made about the Local Government Election Reform laws, that the draft had been finalized. Predictably that draft proved absurd and had to be withdrawn. Though it was reintroduced with some corrections and passed, a few months later, it was after a pledge that further amendments would be brought, a pledge that has not as yet been fulfilled. Interestingly the Minister of Local Government, who realized something was gravely amiss, did ask me to advise on the revised draft, but of course he too is powerless given the fraternal juggernaut. Fortunately for government, the opposition is so chaotic that it has failed signally to hold government to pledges it has made.

I did tell the President that it was possible to talk to him and the Secretary of Defence, because though they explode – the latter more so now, perhaps because he recognizes the traps into which he has fallen but sees no way out – they do listen and sometimes take appropriate action. So the President seems to have listened to Arjuna when he said that a stadium could be built if an investor was found.

So the President did not press Arjuna to put up a massive stadium with state funds. But unfortunately the task of finding an investor was entrusted to Namal, whose idea of investment and the funds required was very different to that of Arjuna. So the deal fell through, and Arjuna ceased to be in charge of Sri Lanka Cricket, and there was massive expenditure on the various stadiums that were used for the World Cup.

Asanga Seneviratne tried to defend the decision to build in Hambantota which disappointed Arjuna, but I thought Asanga had a point in noting the importance of building stadiums in rural areas. What he too agreed with was that such a policy had to spread afield, and something in the North or East would have achieved much more in terms of the social policies Asanga was enunciating.

For the fact is, there has been far too much done in Hambantota, and little of this has been planned sensibly. The harbour I think was a very good idea, given the potential, and though there have been some hiccups which should have been dealt with more transparently, I believe that with proper management of the hinterland, that harbour could benefit the country enormously.

But such a development had to go hand in hand with more investment, and unfortunately no efforts were made to streamline the BOI and encourage Foreign Direct Investment which way back in 2009 would have been so easy to attract. Unfortunately such dealings have been left to individuals such as Namal, but that is inappropriate if Arjuna’s description of what happened with regard to the stadium is correct, and in any case it is obvious that their interests are not necessarily those of the country. Leaving aside other considerations, it makes no sense to allow politicians who have to think about elections to decide on investment policies and practices, because they are intrinsically unable to look at the country as a whole.

The shortcomings with regard to the port multiplied as far as the airport was concerned. When it was mooted, it was suggested that it would help with developing the East, and this seemed a good idea given the enormous tourist potential of that area. In addition, the East was picking up economically after the war there had ended, and providing opportunities for interactions with businessmen in that area seemed an admirable idea.

It was only when I attended the opening of the airport, a chaotic business, that I realized it had however been situated miles from anywhere, and was not much good for interactions with the East, or even with the South Coast. Perhaps there was no suitable site nearer the coast, given the needs of both Wild Life and Irrigation. But in that case it would have made more sense to have cited the new airport further north, in the Polonnaruwa District – which had been suggested long ago by President Premadasa, when he identified Hingurakgoda for the purpose.

But the current culture of decision making without appropriate consultation inevitably leads to decisions based on parochial considerations. I do not think the President would have ignored a sensible analysis of the situation. But even if he did, and insisted on Mattala, he would not have ignored a position paper on the ancillary facilities that had to be developed if it was to be successful. He would have been horrified if he had been told when the airport was opened two years ago, that now there would be no commercial flights going there. But I suspect that even that is concealed from him, and the actual amount of money lost each day on the airport is not told him.

I am told that I defend him too much and that, since he is responsible, he should track all these himself. That is perhaps true, but given that he has not bothered to set up a coherent system of administration in his office, there is no way in which information can reach him. He does have good officials, but they are overworked, as in the case of the excellent Anura Dissanayake, who was made Secretary to the Ministry of Education but still has high level responsibilities in the Presidential Secretariat. And the previously efficient Lalith Weeratunge, the only entirely honest and devoted servant of his master, can no longer function as he used to do, given the constraints presented by the myriad rent seekers also in attendance.

The fact that Hambantota produced a much worse result in the last Provincial Council election should have indicated to the President what lies in store. And even if it is correct that he cannot be defeated, given the caliber of the opposition against him, he must think not only of his legacy, but of how he could lead the country in the next few years. It would not do for someone who achieved so much in his first term to preside over overwhelming disasters.

Ceylon Today 23 Sept 2014

Presidency Under threat - 18