Vulgar theatre (of “Honourable” MPs)

Island Editorial

Friday’s unruly behavior in Parliament is nothing new to Lankans who are largely acclimatized to rowdy scenes in the legislature. Although these events do grab headlines and television and radio time, as happened on this occasion, many will agree that they are hardly newsworthy – except perhaps to make people wonder yet again why their tax rupees are wasted in lavishly supporting their representatives who are embroiled in fighting each other over their own petty issues rather than effectively coming to grips with matters of importance to the country. About two years ago, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya revealed that as much as Rs. 4.6 million a day is spent on parliamentary sittings. We do not know what that figure included – possibly the mere establishment cost of the sittings excluding the ever growing fat emoluments and perks that our lawmakers enjoy. However that be, it must have surely gone up like everything else since 2015. Maybe our Parliament is better than the Tamil Nadu State Assembly at its worst. But we must be ranking high in the list of the world’s most riotous legislatures if such a list has ever been compiled.

When an opposition frontbencher, unable to have his way, asked Speaker Jayasuriya to “act according to his conscience,” the speaker was able to say he always does that. Given the even handed manner in which he conducts the affairs of the House and his gentlemanly conduct in and out of the legislature, there will be little disagreement on that score. The current issue the JO is fighting relates to Mr. Wimal Weerawansa’s claim that his National Freedom Front is no longer a constituent of the United People’s Freedom Alliance under whose banner he and the rest of his group were elected to the sitting Parliament. He wants the NFF recognized as a distinct independent entity. What is implied but remains unsaid is that he should be accorded privileges that go with such status including the right to attend party leaders meetings, make statements on important issues etc. When former President Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered an unexpected defeat at the prematurely called presidential election in 2015, the leadership of the SLFP was thrust on the winning candidate. There was no opposition to that from within an SLFP then licking its wounds. The president thereupon took steps to consolidate his hold over the blue party of which he had long been a loyalist and the SLFP-led UPFA. Weerawansa is very much a part of the JO and a loyalist of the former president as are many others who were elected to the incumbent Parliament on the UPFA ticket. Withdrawing from the UPFA and claiming an independent existence is no more than a barely disguised attempt by Weerawansa to butter his bread on both sides.

Cartoon added by TW from Ceylon Today

When the speaker permitted the JO, rather than the opposition which includes the JVP and the TNA, to vent their spleen on Friday, the Leader of the House, Mr. Lakshman Kirliella, took umbrage and led the government MPs out of the chamber. He had argued that the interminable squabbling was becoming entrenched and parliamentary time was being wasted to the detriment of government business. The speaker, who said he had agreed to let the JO have their say kept his word and the government side (for the first time in parliamentary history it was reported yesterday) walked out.

Jayasuriya wisely adjourned proceedings till March 21. Whether the interim would serve as a cooling-off period or whether events occurring outside such as numerous street protests hampering traffic movements on already overcrowded roads remains to be seen. We can be happy that our legislators have at least not lost their sense of humor. An opposition colleague asked Kiriella who re-entered the chamber after the House adjourned whether he had ensured and early end to proceedings “so that you’ll can go for the match?” The smiling minister gathered his papers and left.

The country is in the throes of the worst droughts in a decade and close to a million people are in dire need of relief. Quite apart from trucking drinking water to those in acute distress, provisions will have to be made to compensate farmers who were unable to cultivate their fields the last season. Large numbers urgently require food assistance. Yet, in such a scenario, Parliament had a few days ago passed a supplementary estimate of nearly Rs. 500 million to buy luxury vehicles for 11 ministers, state ministers and others including the leader of the opposition – something a columnist writing for this issue has seen as “obscene.” But the stridently vociferous JO MP’s as The Island noted on Friday was silent on “yahapalana extravagance, MPs privileges.” Queried on the subject at a press conference last week, JO leaders lamely admitted that they haven’t taken a stance on such expenditure knowing, no doubt, that they had done much the same. All but one of the vehicles to be purchased will each cost the taxpayer over Rs. 40 million! The cheaper one is some Rs. 37 million! As a reader’s letter said yesterday, the picture is dismal with irredeemable debt, unfavorable markets, diminished reserves, flight of foreign capital, lack of FDI, declining rupee values and increased street unrest. “But undeterred by misfortune, if the press report is correct, the cabinet has approved and the House will no doubt dutifully follow, a massive provision of 143 million, to allow the payment of 100,000 rupees a month per MP to equip their electorate offices!”

The political class must realize that these words encompass public opinion. But we have rulers who buy loyalty by lining the pockets of the MPs, both in the government and opposition, and bestowing cabinet office with fat salaries and lavish perquisites for the sole purpose of remaining in power. People rejected by the electorate have been brought into Parliament via national lists and anointed with higher office. Given all its weaknesses let Parliament at least now reduce making the legislature a platform of vulgar theatre. Calling on the so-called “Honorable Members” to totally desist will be a waste of breath.