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A war the Opposition could lead

UNP parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake is to be highly commended for a query he raised in Parliament the other day. He asked the government how much President Mahinda Rajapaksa's foreign travel in his present capacity had cost the country. It was a whopping sum as Minister Dinesh Gunawardana revealed to the House.

The President has travelled abroad 18 times and the expenditure incurred is 209 million rupees! The biggest presidential entourage was the one that went to New York in 2006. Still fresh in office, in organising that trip, the President may have been influenced by generosity of the Giruvapattu peasants around his Medamoolana Walawwa, who squeeze as many kith and kin as possible into a single vehicle when they go on pilgrimage.

The public will also be thankful to the Opposition, if it could elicit from the government from time to time how much our pleasure seeking Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama's junkets cost the public purse. He is apparently competing with himself in going abroad. Cynics say he is all out to set a world record as the most travelled foreign minister. The late Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hameed would spin in his grave if he knew somebody has already broken his record!

The same goes for all other government politicians who are more abroad than here at a huge cost to the State coffers and much to the neglect of their duties. Their foreign travel expenses, too, must be made public periodically so that those spendthrift politicians will be compelled to act with some restraint at a time the country is faced with a foreign reserve crisis and the government is going cap in hand to international lending institutions. A dollar saved, those worthies must be told, is a dollar earned.

However, it is not only foreign travel of the ruling party politicians and the Head of State that constitutes a drain on the national coffers and therefore needs public scrutiny. Former Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC on Friday pointed out a COPE report issued under his stewardship had helped save a staggering sum of rupees equivalent to one half of Sri Lanka's GDP. And what was the reward he got for his outstanding contribution? Removal from that post unceremoniously! The government still insists that no action could be taken against anyone on the basis of COPE or Public Accounts Committee (PAC) findings which ironically underpinned the landmark Supreme Court judgments during the past few years annulling the sale of several public assets, the latest being the divestiture of the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation.

Last week, Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage declared at a post Cabinet press briefing that the government would probe its former Minister and dissident SLFP stalwart Mangala Samaraweera for what it termed waste and corruption. However, no specific charges were mentioned. Why didn't they probe Mangala when he was in the good books of the powers that be? Is it only dissident Ministers and MPs who will be probed?

Strangely, the government that is issuing such threats against dissidents is not taking any action against those named in the damning COPE report in question. The Bribery Commission has also done precious little as regards investigating those responsible for the illegal deals shot down by the Supreme Court.

A female TNA MP was debarred from attending Parliament for one day last week as her dress was deemed improper. Parliamentarians have a dress code and therefore the decision of the Sergeant-at-arms cannot be questioned. He knows better. But it is intriguing why a Parliament that promptly takes action against a woman MP over her 'unparliamentary' dress baulks so pusillanimously at dealing with some lawmakers named by COPE as being responsible for mega corrupt transactions. Is the plunder of public assets a less serious offence than the breach of the parliamentary dress code?

The question is whether the politicians sans an iota of shame to rob this poor country of its precious assets have any need for clothes. Such shameless crooks, we reckon, cannot have any difficulty in going about in public in the buff!

It is hoped that the Opposition will crank up pressure on the government to take action against the plunderers of State property and their collaborators.

Meanwhile, not many lawmakers have declared their assets and liabilities in keeping with the law. This legal requirement has been taken for granted and parliamentarians are therefore free to amass even ill-gotten wealth without fear of being exposed. Both the government and the Opposition have carefully avoided this vital issue of national importance. To permit noncompliance as regards asset declaration is to leave room for bribery and corruption as evident in a way from the aforesaid COPE report.

The Opposition has made several abortive attempts to move the Bribery Commission against certain government worthies during the past few years. Such gimmicks are the order of the day in politics but if the Opposition really wants to battle bribery and corruption, it should help ensure the proper implementation of laws governing the assets of politicians.

The onus is on Opposition firebrands like Karunanayake to install transparency and accountability safeguards in the national legislature. They ought to prove that they are real watchdogs not caring a damn about self interest but doing everything possible for this country and its poor people who are paying for the maintenance of the whole caboodle of politicians, their progeny and cohorts living in clover. The Opposition lawmakers should set an example for their ruling party counterparts by submitting detailed declarations of their assets and liabilities, if they haven't already done so. They must prove, if they could, that they are different from those they are painting a black picture of.


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