More burdens on people, more perks for MPs

Sunday Times Editorials

Corruption and political agendas – the second editorial follows this 

This week, Parliament approved a gut-wrenching blow on the ordinary people of this country by raising the Value Added Tax (VAT), an indirect tax that hits every citizen in many different ways.

Nobody likes taxes. Yet whether one likes it or not, taxes are needed to run a country. But finding revenue also comes with saving expenditure. When the humble citizens are asked to pay higher taxes, they expect it to be shared by all and that some people are not more equal than others.

Just as Parliament passes an enhanced VAT into law, its members from all sides of the floor have joined hands in stoutly defending moves not only to give to themselves duty-free vehicles, but allow any one of them to sell these vehicles pocketing the millions of rupees that ought to go to the Treasury and the common purse. The pithy Sinhala idiom “handa athey thiyanokota kaagen ahannada” (when the ladle is in your hand, whose permission do you need to serve yourself) is so apt. They seem to have no pangs of conscience to trouble them in doing what they do.

Cartoon is from Ceylon Today

At a time when the call is for the common folk of this country is to tighten their belts even further than they already have, this is a pathetic, condemnable show by the very people who should set an example in sharing the burdens of the state.

Furthermore, MPs have been given the go-ahead to incorporate Foundations in their own name and collect “gifts” and “donations” –in other words, bribes, to collect money for their future political campaigns in the guise of doing social service work in their constituencies. This is the very culture that the UNP leader once frowned upon and banned in his party, while in Opposition. But that was once upon a time.

Some MPs have also been given the option of choosing an SUV or half a million rupees a month in lieu thereof for travelling. Are all these ‘santhosams’ to keep them happy, and earn their vote to pass the proposed new Constitution Bill, while the ordinary folk will be even more hard-pressed to pay their grocery, medical and phone bills?

Can the Finance Minister say to the public how much the ordinary people have to pay for the upkeep of their Right Honourable MPs. If not, why not?

Corruption and political agendas

For the third consecutive week, the issue of corruption came to the fore of public debate. The President fired the first salvo referring to the ‘politicisation’ of the Government’s anti-corruption drive. His remarks caused consternation within the ranks of his National Unity Government, especially the main coalition partner, the UNP.

The President was being accused of trying to ‘politicise’ the process himself by sending smoke signals that he was unhappy with the manner in which his own SLFP ministers were being questioned by the Bribery Commission for past misdeeds. These were his close political fellow travellers who have abandoned his bete noir former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and he needed their support very badly, after all.

This snowball has begun to roll gathering momentum and to all but knock over the UNP now with the 2015 Central Bank bond scandal. It is the widely held public view that the party hierarchy was straining every sinew to protect a family that was directly culpable in this mega scandal.

The double-standards in the Government’s anti-corruption drive have been badly exposed by both the SLFP and UNP leadership. (It was a rather nihilistic approach adopted in investigating the bond scam. So much so, wild allegations have begun to surface and circulate justifiably or not that the UNP itself benefited financially from what the Parliamentary Oversight Committee (COPE) has found was a massive racket directly involving the then Governor of the Central Bank and his son-in-law.)

Why only this particular matter had to go before a Parliamentary committee when others went to the specially set up Police Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) is a valid question. The Bribery and Corruption Commission began its own inquiry last year, never to be heard of again. Many felt, even then, that this was merely an exercise to sweep things under the carpet and spin out the problem hoping it would go away. It did not, and instead, the foul stench of rotting garbage permeates the air.

Others might argue that given the fact that the FCID and the Bribery and Corruption Commission were tainted with a political flavour at the time, a Parliamentary committee was the better option. The COPE report, however damning, is only limited to making its recommendations, contentious as they are, to the whole of Parliament. There it sits. Now come the calls for a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (which can take another month of Sundays of investigations). (That report too will also be limited to making recommendations while the perpetrators of this monumental crime will be basking in the sunshine.)

The UNP hierarchy may want not to know it, but the party has received a huge setback in public confidence, its once pristine image in tatters. Some compare it to the Bofors scandal that enveloped and later ruined the reputation of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as ‘Mr. Clean’.

One of the early mistakes the UNP made was not to investigate the Central Bank’s sordid affairs that took place before it took charge in January 2015. There was a basic reason to overlook this. The newly appointed man at the helm and his immediate family had cosy business dealings with the previous dispensation. Thus, there were no inquiries into bond scams of the pre-2015 times, the pyramid schemes, the Commonwealth Games and Greek bonds, and the hiring of lobby firms and purchase of property in the United States. Not for nothing did the Central Bank of yesteryear acquire the nick-name, along with the Colombo Stock Exchange, as ‘The Laundry’.

All this, by default, has come back to haunt the UNP, as its coalition partner in the Government of National Unity has openly, and now more vigorously come to distance itself from this particular sequence of events at the Central Bank.

The way some Cabinet Ministers spoke in Parliament this week when the COPE report on the 2015 Central Bank bond issue was being discussed must make it clear to the UNP that these strictures were surely under the direction of a ‘higher authority’ who has quite categorically said that he has given a ‘blank cheque’ to his party secretaries to work towards forming their own SLFP Government in the near future.

The UNP has painted itself into a corner on this issue, quite unwisely. What a fate to have befallen the UNP to defend one man and his son-in-law against all the odds.