All right thinking Sri Lankans would welcome the near unanimity reached between the Government and the Opposition in voting together on a matter of great public interest in Parliament on Thursday.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa welcoming the development expressed the hope that this would be the beginning of a trend that departed from the practice hitherto adopted by both the Government and the Opposition of opposing each other on crucial matters affecting the future of the country. Hopefully, he would sustain these sentiments since so far it has been the Opposition which had been attempting to stymie the Government at every turn, chiefly for political advantage.
For one thing the country cannot afford to be divided at such a decisive phase in its post-Independence history. For another, opposing each other at each and every turn would also cause division among the public based on party lines which too had resulted in stifling our progress. So far, both the Government and the Opposition had been Opposing each other both within and outside Parliament as a matter of habit .
This just about sums up the situation the country is placed in. Wrong judgements are made by all Governing parties using their majority in Parliament simply for the sake of spiting the Opposition, with the country and the public being the losers. The Opposition too criticises and even jeopardises even the good deeds done by the Government. This should change.
Ideally, from this point onwards members from both the Government and the Opposition should be permitted a ‘conscience vote’ like they do in the British House of Commons. There, no Member is penalized for voting in terms of their conscience as is done here. Even in our case the conscience vote was permitted on occasions in the past – prominent among them being that of Minister Gamani Jayasuriya who abstained from voting in favour of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 and that of former Speaker Anura Bandaranaike who, while being a UNP MP from the Opposition, supported his mother Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on a vote taken against her with no objection from the Greens. In any case, Parliament already has facilities for a “secret vote”.
Besides there have been instances when the Opposition had supported the Government at times of grave national peril. One recalls then Opposition leader J.R. Jayewardene extending his support to Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to quell the 1971 JVP insurrection when he saw a threat to the country’s democratic system.
Similarly, in 1990 though being bitter critics of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) provided him the party’s support to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at a time when the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were at stake. When the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami struck, then Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe mounted the stage with President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who was trying to cope with the devastation and pledged to assist the Government in every possible way.
It is therefore time to turn a new leaf in the hitherto rancorous relationship between the Government and the Opposition both within and outside Parliament. Party politics should not be allowed to stand in the way of doing the right thing for the country and its people. Both parties owe the public that much.
Both political and personal prejudices should not be allowed to colour one’s judgement. The country’s failure to develop and progress during the past 75 could be chiefly attributed to political division and also divisions along ethnic and religious lines.
It had always been the case for a new Government installed in office to discontinue projects or halt the development works commenced by its predecessor chiefly out of political vendetta – the vicious cycle continuing to the present day. One prime example was the unilateral cancellation of the Japan-funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) project in Colombo by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration. Election violence and destruction too took a heavy toll for the same reason, leaving people divided and going for each other’s jugular.
Hopefully, Thursday’s welcome development in Parliament would see an end to this trend and the country’s interests given chief prominence to the exclusion of all else. The acid test in this regard, no doubt, is going to be the 2024 Budget vote.
It is left to be seen if Opposition Leader Premadasa’s stand on joint cooperation is genuine or confined to mere words. No doubt the Rathu Sahodarayas are not going to be party to such an arrangement. It had always voted against past budgets. Even during Thursday’s vote, the three Members of the National People’s Power (NPP) were absent. Of course, they would not want to do anything that would affect their electoral fortunes.
If so, here too primacy is being given to political considerations rather than the larger national interest. This has been the bane of this country that has prevented it from forging ahead. Hopefully, saner counsel will prevail, making all concerned to put the country ahead of all else. A start should be made at least now, learning from all our missed opportunities in the past.