President will deliver the goods - Nimal Siripala de Silva | Sunday Observer

President will deliver the goods - Nimal Siripala de Silva

27 November, 2022

Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva said that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has come forward and taken up the challenge of rebuilding the country. So, we should extend our fullest support and give him some time to see whether he performs well. The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said “In my personal view, the President is performing well and he has cleared many obstacles during the past three to four months. We have a firm belief the President will deliver the goods.” Minister de Silva said at present, the people are more interested in rebuilding the economy and getting some relief rather than going for an early election. The Members of Parliament as the people’s representatives have realised the economic situation that we are facing and majority of them want to genuinely support the Government to emancipate from this crisis situation.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: Do you think Budget 2023 has been prepared out of the conservative and traditional framework?

A: Certainly. It has been prepared outside the traditional framework. Our traditional way of thinking and expectation on the Budget is that something must be given to the people such as an increase of salary and reducing taxes where the people will get immediate short-term benefits. At the moment, we are in a very severe economic crisis which has not been experienced during the past seven decades. What is needed at the moment is to ensure that we get out of this economic mess that we are facing right now.

For that purpose, we have to go outside the box and find solutions. If we take the income and expenditure, our expenditure is three or four times more than the income that we are deriving from taxes and other sources. Even in a household, if your expenditure is higher than the household income, you go into debt. Therefore, we have to restructure the collection of taxes and curtail expenses for some time until we rebuild our economy.

The sole purpose and the vision behind the Budget is to rebuild the economy which has been destroyed during the past five or six decades. We need innovative solutions and approaches and the people will also have to tighten their belts. This is not a popular Budget because if you go into the popular way you can’t achieve what you want. The President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his capacity as the Finance Minister had the courage to take certain decisions that no politician in Sri Lanka took earlier. Actually, this decision would have been taken very much earlier.

At present 52 Government institutions are running at a loss. If you take Sri Lankan Airlines, the loss accumulated is nearly US$ 1100 million. A farmer or a worker who never got into a Sri Lankan Airline plane is paying for this. Therefore, we need to restructure the economy and we have to get out of this mess. That is the path that we have shown in this Budget.

Q: However, the Opposition says the Budget 2023 is unrealistic and not people-friendly.

A: This Budget can’t be people-friendly. Temporarily, it is not people-friendly but in the long term it will be people-friendly because when we reestablish our economy, then all the people will be in a safe position.

Q: The SLFP Central Committee on Monday (21) decided to suspend the membership of eight MPs including you who have accepted portfolios in the Government, contradicting the unanimous decision taken by the party, until disciplinary proceedings against them are concluded. Would you like to comment?

A: I don’t want to speak on that matter as I have already filed a case in court. We will deal with it legally because we supported the Government not for any personal gains. We must put country first and party second. The collective decision taken by us was that at this juncture, we should support the Government to rebuild the economy and the country. The vision of a politician or a political party should not be finding shortcuts to come into power but to ensure that we sacrifice and do something for the country. We have done that. We firmly believe at this juncture, what is needed is to extend our support to President Ranil Wickremesinghe to get the country out of the current crisis situation. Earlier premiership was offered to Sajith Premadasa, Maithripala and so many other politicians but they all refused to take the challenge. Now President Ranil Wickremesinghe has come forward and taken up the challenge. So, we should support him and give him some time to see whether he performs well. In my personal view, he is performing well. He has cleared many obstacles during the past three to four months. We have a firm belief he will deliver the goods.

Q: Of the total number of SLFP Parliamentarians, majority of them are with the Government. It seems there is a division within the party. How would this affect the future of the party?

A: We are in the SLFP. While being the SLFP, we are supporting the Government. At the same time, if the Government is doing something wrong, we don’t hesitate to oppose that as well. Obviously, there is a division within the SLFP right now. We want to preserve the party. Why did I go to court? If I don’t care for the party, then I should have resigned and gone. I dedicated my entire political career to strengthen the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). I was offered the Common Candidate before Maithripala Sirisena. However, I didn’t want to leave the party because I love the party more than getting positions in politics. Still that love and affection is there for my party. That is why I am fighting for the internal democracy of the party.

If a party talks about reestablishing democracy in the country, first internal democracy must be established within the party by setting an example. When constitutional amendments are brought within the party and give all the dictatorial powers to one person, that is against the policy of the party. That is why I am challenging that. Apart from whatever the outcome of the case, the party will become more and more unpopular in the eyes of the people. We are fighting to ensure that the party is kept intact. We have not left the party. We have no intention of leaving the party. We want to be in the party and want to strengthen democracy within the party and its vote base.

Q: Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara told the Parliament the SLFP is working against the Government as some SLFP members were not given the requested positions.

A: That is also true to some extent. If some of the people who have been fighting against the Government now, my view is if they were given positions, they would have been in favour of the Government. They accuse us for having personal agendas whereas the other people who have personal agendas within and outside the party.

Q: Despite the Second Reading of the Budget 2023 was passed by a majority of 34 votes, the main Opposition SJB, SLFP, Jathika Jana Balawegaya and majority of independent MPs voted against it.

A: Passing the Budget by a majority of 34 votes shows how strong we are. The Members of Parliament as the representatives of the people have realised the economic situation that we are facing and majority of them want to genuinely support the Government to emancipate from this crisis situation. That is a very practical approach. What the Opposition thinks is that by opposing everything, they will be able to broaden their vote base whereas it will not happen.

Q: The Opposition accuses the Government of conspiring to put off scheduled Local Government polls indefinitely. Your views?

A: There is no truth in this allegation. At the moment, there is a huge cry from the people that the number of members in the Local Government bodies is too much. Therefore, the President has decided to reduce it by half.

That will pave the way to save a large amount of money at this crisis moment. The people are asking for a lesser number of representatives to the Local Government bodies. So, we are in the process of doing that. We have not brought any legislation to postpone the elections. My personal view is also that the Local Government elections must be held as soon as possible.

However, there must be a conducive environment for that because we should structure our election laws. Now we have brought a bill before Parliament to curtail the election expenditure and we must find a better system as correctly said by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Parliament on Wednesday. He said irregularities have increased due to the preferential voting system. That has also been my vision throughout.

There must be a system where a member is elected to a defined constituency who takes the responsibility for that constituency. Therefore, we have to be away from this archive method of preferential voting system which has led to a lot of problems within and outside the parties. Merely having an election won’t help the country. We should have a more hybrid system where the democracy could be upheld and at the same time facilitate candidates to canvas without spending so much of money.

Q: The Opposition raised concerns in Parliament over the National Police Commission (NPC) Chairman Chandra Fernando and another NPC member being among those who welcomed former Minister Basil Rajapaksa upon his arrival in Sri Lanka last Sunday (20). Your views?

A: My personal view is that NPC Chairman Chandra Fernando should not have gone there. I must be very frank about it. Anyway, I don’t know why he went there. Sometimes, it may be due to his friendship with Rajapajksa or any other official purpose and I don’t know. It would have been better if he didn’t go for that without creating a problem for the Government.

Q: Declarations of assets and liabilities of MPs has once again come to light and the proposed Anti-Corruption Bill has also been prepared based on certain provisions of the United Nations charter against corruption including provisions for publishing of declarations of assets and liabilities of MPs. Do you think there is an urgent need to declare assets and liabilities of Parliamentarians?

A: Certainly. I am in favour of that Bill. That is a demand from civil society as well. So, we must accede to these demands. There is nothing to hide.

Q: Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa says holding a General Election is the only way out to the current political crisis. Do you agree? Is there any need to conduct an election at this juncture?

A: No. When an election is conducted, we have to do everything according to our Constitution. People’s representatives are elected for a period of five years. In our earlier Constitution, the President had the power to dissolve Parliament at any time. Now the President can dissolve Parliament only after two and a half years. It is up to the President to use his discretion but there is no other provision where we can go for a parliamentary election. There is another issue whether it is practical to go for a parliamentary election at this juncture when the people are suffering and have a lot of shortcomings in their day today livelihood.

Q: How do you justify the continued expenditure allocated to the Defence Ministry, especially during an economic crisis and more than a decade after end the battle against terrorism?

A: For example, if you take the Navy, it has a great role to play. We are an island nation. The people are blaming that there are so many drug addicts in the country but these drugs are coming to the country through the sea. How many raids have been conducted by the Navy during the past so many years? So, we have to strengthen maritime security. You need sophisticated new equipment, ships and aircrafts.

At the same time, we have an Army which has been recruited during the time of the battle against terrorism. We can’t dismantle that within a day or two. We are trying to send them more into the UN Peacekeeping efforts where we can earn money. Apart from that, it is the time for us to diversify the activities of the Army, Navy and Air Force where they also can generate some funds for the economy. That can’t be done overnight. We have to be mindful that nowadays we need more sophisticated equipment as we are going for a digital economy.

Today the horizon of the defence has changed from the very archive sort of structure to a modern structure. So, we have to modernise the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Police. Therefore, spending more money on defence can be justified.

Q: You have said that consumer goods such as rice and turmeric have been decaying in the warehouses at Customs for many years and it is unacceptable given the current economic situation in the country. Could you explain?

A: We have to amend the Customs Ordinance. The Customs Department tries to implement the Customs ordinance without any exception. That is what they have to do but we have to change those laws. In one of my warehouses, there are clothes which have been rotten and lying for the past 20 years. There must be some way out to bring an amendment and say if the case goes beyond one or two years, sell those stuff and deposit that money in courts. After the outcome of the case whoever who wins can get the money. We have to go for a drastic change like that.

The other thing is a lot of corruption is taking place at the Customs. Therefore, we have to digitalise the whole Custom system. We have to revamp the Customs Department and change the Customs Ordinance and facilitate the early removal of the detained items from the port.

Q: When you were fully cleared from the accusations levelled against you regarding the Japan’s Taisei Company issue, once again JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in Parliament accused you regarding the issue. Would you like to comment?

A: This is the usual tactic of the JVP. When this allegation was levelled against me, I wrote to the President and resigned my ministerial portfolio. When then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country, Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as the President. Then I made a request to conduct an inquiry as I want to clear my name.

The President appointed a three-member committee chaired by Retired High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena, PC. The committee went through all the evidence. The Taisei Managing Director also said they were really shocked to hear this allegation. Either me or no Cabinet Minister demanded a bribe from them.

Once Attorney-at-Law Shiral Lakthilaka made a statement to the media that there are telephone conversations which are recorded in the Embassy. The committee wrote to the Japanese Embassy and asked whether this is true. They said there are no such recordings or evidence. So, I was cleared from that inquiry.

Then Anura Kumara Dissanayake said they can’t accept that inquiry and it must be done by the Bribery Commission.

Then two lawyers planted by them went to the Bribery Commission and made a complaint against me. After some time under the Right to Information Act, I wrote to the Bribery Commission and asked what is the position of this inquiry.

Then they sent me a letter which I tabled in Parliament on Wednesday saying that they closed the file due to lack of evidence. Then tomorrow the JVP might say the Bribery Commission is biased or something like that. If something is not in their favour they always level such frivolous allegations.