“Sunday Times” Political Editor
President Maithripala Sirisena, gave mixed signals, not unusually, when he vetoed his own demarche not to chair Cabinet meetings until he carries out a re-shuffle of Ministers. Last Monday morning, he directed the Cabinet Secretariat to summon the weekly ministerial meeting the next day, Tuesday. Officials hurriedly telephoned ministers to tell them the meeting which was indefinitely postponed, would take place at 10 a.m. at the Presidential Secretariat. It was just the week before that Sirisena refrained from formally choosing the date and time for the next meeting.
It came after he hinted to Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers that no Cabinet meetings would take place until the reshuffle was made. He pointed out that he had already pledged that such changes would be made before Vesak Poya, which has now come and gone. This was on the basis that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to such a reshuffle.
Since their meeting on May 9, the Cabinet Secretariat distributed to ministers different memoranda approved by the President, a prelude to these being discussed at Cabinet meetings. Though they were titled “AGENDA FOR THE NEXT MEETING OF THE CABINET OF MINISTERS,” in the preamble, the document made clear that “The Date, Time and Venue for the Next Meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers will be notified by the Secretary to the Cabinet in due course.”
On other occasions, the date, time and the venue form the preamble of the Agenda. For example, for the Cabinet meeting on May 9, it said “agenda for the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers to be held on 9th May, 2017 at 9.30 a.m. at the Presidential Secretariat.” Thus, the spate of telephone calls went out on Monday morning for the Tuesday meeting. That in itself was to give rise to speculation among ministers — would a reshuffle take place ahead of the meeting or would there be a statement of some sort. They were proved wrong.
Listed for discussion on that day were 25 Cabinet Papers on different subjects and a further ten related to Procurement Matters. A sampling would show the subjects were relatively non-controversial.
* Minutes of the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management held on 25 April – and 7th April — from Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe.
*Amending the Explosives Ordinance no 21 of 1956 — from President Sirisena who is Minister of Defence.
* Continental Shelf Submission of Sri Lanka to the Commission on the limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — from Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.
* Development of Batticaloa Airport for civilian flights – from Transport and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva.
* A pilot project on implementation of flexi hours in Government offices around Battaramulla– from Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka.
* Implementation of Major Reforms to enhance the Investment Climate in Sri Lanka — by International Trade and Development Strategies Minister Malik Samarawickrema.
* Report on the Actual Expenditure at the end of 1st quarter of the Financial Year 2017 — from Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake.
* Establishing a reinsurance scheme — from Agricultue Minister DumindaDissanayake.
Procurement related matters included:
*Procurement of armoured logistics vehicles for peace keeping operations — from President Sirisena as Minister of Defence.
* Renovation of the National Holiday Resort (NHR) at Bentota– from Tourism Minister John Ameratunga.
* Procurement of communications equipment for Peacekeeping Operations in Mali — from President Sirisena as Minister of defence.
* Entrusting the responsibility of printing school textbooks required to be distributed free of charge to private printing institutions — from Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam.
The ministerial meeting last Tuesday ended in 75 minutes. Other than the memoranda, there was no discussion on any other issue. Sirisena explained that he would have to leave since he had planned to chair a high level meeting of officials to discuss the spread of dengue and the counter measures necessary.
When he left, strange enough, most ministers remained puzzled. It was not just the public at large who were unaware of the goings on at the highest levels of the Government but Sirisena’s own ministers in the Cabinet. Some had believed that Sirisena called off his self-imposed ban on Cabinet meetings after his talks with Premier Wickremesinghe on May 12. This was ahead of his departure to Beijing, China.
After the meeting, both SLFP and United National Party (UNP) ministers confirmed it has now been ‘signed and sealed.’ Adding great weight to this belief was President Sirisena himself. He told our sister paper Irida Lankadeepa that a reshuffle would take place. The man who has to carry out this much awaited shift of ministers interpreted his Vesak Poya deadline to be the month of Vesak, not a particular day. In other words, though Vesak was over, there was still time, he seemed to say.
However, the guessing game over a reshuffle has gone on since January this year. Though it died down, it was re-ignited by Sirisena’s own utterances. Most Sri Lankans took them seriously since they came from the President.
Now, it is confirmed that the reshuffle will take place tomorrow (Monday). Ministers, Deputy and State Ministers were yesterday asked to present themselves at 8.30 a.m. at the Presidential Secretariat. That makes clear that the reshuffle will be more extensive than earlier expected. Some ministers are tipped to receive plum positions with three or more key subjects. One such example will be a Ministry of Finance, Ports and Communications.
The ‘newly shaped’ Cabinet is expected to be briefed by Sirisena when it meets at 9 a.m. on Tuesday for its weekly session.Earlier, senior UNPers said that there should be no immediate reshuffle and their ministers should be allowed to “work and prove their mettle.”
A senior UNPer said they should not be judged from the “critical comments of their SLFP colleagues.” However, the senior member conceded that in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the President was empowered to carry out a reshuffle without consulting anyone.
Section 43 (3) of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution states: “(1) The President shall, in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation to be necessary, determine the number of Ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers and the assignment of subjects and functions to such Ministers.
“(2) The President shall, on the advice of the Prime Minister, appoint from among Members of Parliament, Ministers, to be in charge of the Ministries so determined.
(3) “The President may at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers and the continuity of its responsibility to Parliament.”