Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera is a far too senior and experienced a politician to have made the gaffe he made a few days ago in saying that members of the Rotary and Lion’s movements are among drug dealers who are well accepted members of society. The drug barons were very much in the news at the time Samaraweera made his controversial, nay stupid, remark as President Maithripala Sirisena had just gone public with his proposal to hanging convicted drug offenders running their businesses from behind prison bars.
But the outspoken minister quickly made amends by admitting that he was wrong and offering a handsome apology to those he had wronged. This is something that we Lankans are normally not used to. What we are familiar with are foot-in-the-mouth politicians, and sometimes bureaucrats, claiming that they have been misquoted and painfully trying to explain away foolish or inconvenient remarks often making the media the scapegoat. We join the many social media users who have praised Samaraweera for his instant mea culpa and immediate apology which laid the contentious issue to instant rest.
Samaraweera, as is well known, is an outspoken public personality. Even when he was new in politics he did not try to keep his sexual preferences a dark secret. In recent years the world has come to accept homosexuality as a fact of life and many countries have removed sections of their statues making illegal such acts between consenting adults. Same sex marriages are now fairly common and some parts of the world give partners in such relationships the same rights that heterosexual spouses enjoy. The fact that the minister did not pretend to be what he was not even at a time the world was much less liberal about such matters than it is today, stood him in good stead. Given that openness, salacious gossip and backstairs sniggering did him little or no harm. He enjoys substantial electoral support and is sometimes mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in the future. Whether that will come to pass, only time will tell.
Apart from Mangala Samaraweera attracting fulsome praise for apologizing for some wrong speech he was guilty of, we find that the recently published annual report of the Lion Brewery calls him a “courageous and pragmatic finance minister.” Prohibitionists and anti-alcohol activists will no doubt shake their heads and say “what else would the country’s biggest beer brewer, commercially benefiting from changes to the excise duty on beer, say about a man who made it possible for their industry to make more money?” We would beg to differ. We have said before and would say again that the policies on taxation of alcohol that has long prevailed in this country have been plain stupid. It is common knowledge that extraordinarily high taxation has driven large numbers of imbibers into the clutches of the illicit liquor industry that exists in every nook and cranny in this island. Sky high taxes that made legitimate, regulated, and tax-paying alcoholic products totally unaffordable to most, at substantial cost to state revenue, only served to enrich illicit liquor manufacturers. Political leaders trumpeting mathata thitha (bitter alcohol) and privately indulging themselves and serving alcoholic beverages at state expense as part of official entertainment were hypocritical in the extreme but seldom publicly branded as such.
What the incumbent finance minister did in March 2018 to earn the plaudits of the beer industry was to reverse what brewers call a “dubious excise tax increase on beer” and return to the pre-November 2015 status. That undoubtedly needed courage. The beer industry has long argued for preferential duty on ‘soft’ alcohol against the ‘hard’ stuff which attracted many supporters. A strong argument on the other side, articulated by Prof. Carlo Fonseka who once headed the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol, was that many drinkers start with beer and then graduate to the harder stuff. Whether there is empirical evidence to back this contention, we do not know. But there is plenty of evidence both anecdotal and otherwise that immoderate use of hard liquor, like cigarettes, is harmful to human health. Smoking, of course, is probably the worse of the two evils. There is no doubt that the price stick, possibly more so than health warnings now compulsorily displayed on cigarette packaging, has proved effectively. But despite the incontrovertible evidence, widely published and freely propagated, there are people who smoke despite the harm they do themselves. That keeps the tobacco industry profitable although volume growth is either slowing or negative according to industry figures.