(Text of Speech made by Jaffna District Parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran During the Budget Debate on – 15th November 2023)
Thank you presiding member for the opportunity to speak at the second reading of the budget proposals that have been presented to this House by his Excellency the President and Minister of Finance.
Whenever I have spoken on the second reading and if it was the president who held the portfolio of finance, I have consistently raised my objection to that fact and I must place my objection today also. I have said this since 2010. The reason is that the constitution says that public finance is a matter that is entirely in the preserve of Parliament, and therefore I take the view that it is only a Member of Parliament who is accountable to Parliament in that way, who must hold the portfolio of finance.
His Excellency the president is not a member of parliament, although he can attend Parliament and he can answer questions. I take the view that the chief of the executive, who is not a member of the legislature, should not hold that post. Having said that, I want to start by welcoming some of the proposals that have been made, for instance we welcome the increase in monthly cost of living allowance of public sector employees and pensioners.
Although insufficient it is a welcome increase. Also the increase the monthly allowance for persons with disabilities, elderly citizens and kidney patients – most welcome. Then expediting compensation for missing persons. There was a large sum that was allocated several years ago, that was not spent. There is an amount in the appropriation act but over and beyond that His Excellency in his speech said, he is allocating a further sum to expedite the payment.
Providing land ownership to farmers; Yes! that’s a very salutary proposal and we welcome that, fishery industry development in the northern region; a long felt need and in the budget proposal that has found mention and we welcome that. Construction of houses for internally displaced person, initiating preliminary work for the water supply project in Jaffna: all of these are matters in the budget proposal that we welcome.
However, it is one thing to have these proposals and it is quite another thing to see them realized. So that is why we have reacted with scepticism, when even these welcome proposals are mentioned. We have tracked or several agencies have tracked the progress made on budget proposals.
The committee on Public Finance has been specially tasked to do this and between the years 2015 and 2019, I had the honour of chairing that committee. And we started that process, but often came up against a blank wall because there was no information available and I must say current chair Hon. Dr. Harsha de Silva is also taking a lot of effort to track to see whether previous year’s budget proposals have been implemented or to what percentage has actually been realised.
Only 8% of last year’s budget proposals – there is even some progress at all. A stupendous 68 % has no information at all – no information at all! Then how can we be satisfied?
How can we be happy that some progressive proposals have been made?
They amount to just words, and I urge, I urge the chair of the Committee on Public Finance to sit at least once a month and summon officials to disclose to that committee the progress made on each of these proposals. It must be a continuous assessment process. If not, Parliament cannot actually exercise that power over public finance.
Those words in the constitution also will become like mere words like in the budget proposals. So if that is to have any meaning and in the full house we will not be able to do that, so now that we have a committee on public finance, I think it would be appropriate to have regular, at least once a month a meeting to assess the progress on all of these proposals that are being made.
I must say that the revenue proposals are wholly unrealistic and it is not this year alone that it is happening. If this is a trend, then we must know that those are unrealistic. Even in the past years we have found that its a habit to make over estimation of revenue and under estimation of expenses.
That’s a way you show – at the budget proposal time at least – a smaller deficit knowing all too well that that is a false figure. That that deficit is much larger, several times more. So the revenue proposals are wholly unrealistic even now. Even now the reason given for the increase in the VAT percentage is said to be “revenue has not been collected as envisaged” – so we knew that well before, well before!
How did we know that, because revenue has never been collected as anticipated or as disclosed as the revenue proposal. We know that. Now that is being said as the reason for burdening the entire population with the VAT rate increase. If the Inland Revenue properly collected taxes from those who are obliged to pay taxes we obviously won’t be in this state. And that is why in the governance diagnostics the IMF has correctly pointed to revenue collections authorities; the customs, the Inland Revenue, has been severely corrupt, high officials being corrupt.
My only grouse with that report is that they left the political masters out of it. In fact, the revenue collection authorities are shielded and protected by political masters in office who are more corrupt than those officials themselves. That is the reason why the country went into bankruptcy.
There is also heavy disparity in allocations. Defence continues to be a high expenditure. We are said to have the 17th largest army in the world. For a small country such as ours – 17th largest – just the size of the army itself. I can understand when at a time when that was perhaps necessary. But 14 or 15 years after the internal strife ended, there doesn’t seem to have been any effort taken to demobilise the armed forces. That effort has not happened at all. And so we keep pumping money into a sector that is not necessary to be maintained in the current context.
And with regard to corruption, the supreme court delivered a judgement yesterday – 265 pages, most welcome judgement of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately it is a majority judgement, one judge for reasons that he has stated has dissented. That’s four to one judgement holding the then President, ministers of finance who held that portfolio, governors of the central bank; the successive governors, secretary to treasury, advisor to the President, one member of the monetary board and the monetary board itself, responsible for the collapse of the economy.
I want to recount a particular series of events. The advisor to the President Dr. P.B.Jayasundara, was found guilty by the supreme court in the case of Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara Vs. K.N.Choksy and I must disclose my interest in this matter because I was the counsel who appeared for Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara. He was found guilty and fined Rs.500,000/- at that time by the supreme court. He paid the fine. He was told that he cannot hold public office thereafter. He gave an affidavit to court stating that he will not hold any public office thereafter. Then there was a change in the office of the Chief Justice. And the new Chief Justice …(Interruption).. the Minister of Justice in asking to name the person, I will tell, it’s not wrong to name him.
The new Chief Justice Asoka de Silva constituted a court to which Dr P.B. Jayasundara made an application to withdraw his affidavit. Why? because then President Mahinda Rajapaksa insisted that P.B.Jayasundara and P.B.Jayasundara alone must be appointed secretary to the treasury. As counsel for Hon. Vasudeva Nanayakkara I objected to this. One day the full court sat – 10 judges sat, one judge was unavailable. And then a 7 judge bench allowed it, with one dissenter, Hon. Shiranee Tilakawardane, wrote a dissenting judgement, a dissenting order, others allowed it.
And he was appointed secretary to the treasury. The Chief Justice at that time who allowed it, the day after his retirement, became the legal advisor to the then President! So, corruption in high places is demonstrated by just this example. And now the Supreme Court again finds that President, his 2 brothers, Dr. P.B. Jayasundara and others responsible for the collapse of the economy.
There is one thing that they have not done, and that they should have done, the court should have done. In the Easter bombing case, for failure to prevent the attack the former President, several others were asked to pay hundreds of millions in compensation. But in yesterday’s judgment those who have been found guilty – found responsible for the economy collapsing in this country don’t have to pay any compensation. The Court says petitioners did not ask for compensation. The court could have granted just and equitable relief – surely the Rajapaksa brothers have enough money to pay the 22 million people in this country. Surely if the compensation had been ordered, all the money that is parked outside the country can be brought
. The Minister of Justice himself said several people have parked money outside the country. It can be brought and the country’s economy can be revived just on that alone. Country’s economy collapsed because country’s public money has been stolen by the President and his brothers and several others who worked with them. They have taken the money out of the country.
What the Supreme Court should have done is to have ordered them to pay compensation for every citizen of this country, and bring that money into the treasury and that would have seen the revival of this country’s economy. This is not the end. Perhaps due to the nature of the proceeding in the Supreme Court, that is what the court has held. But I’m sure, now must start a recovery process from those who have been held responsible by the Supreme Court. And every citizen of this country is entitled to make that claim, to ask them to bring the money back and make this economy stand back again.