Passage of OMP Bill embarrasses Govt


Even anyone familiar with parliamentary process in this land of lotus eaters would wonder how and why this government bungles when it comes to passing new laws.  We are said to have a unity or national government comprising the crème de la crème of the two major parties and they are said to be capable of doing almost anything unlike the one-party governments we used to have. On top of all this we have a prime minister who is so well-versed in parliamentary process that it would be hard to find anyone among all politicians in South Asia who could best him on the subject. And yet, this government stutters and stammers and cannot even pass a simple piece of legislation sans error. Unbelievable!

All this came to light when the House met last Tuesday and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced that the Office of Missing Persons bill had been passed and it became law as he had put his signature to the bill the very same morning. The announcement prompted a virtual setting off of fireworks. The JVP protested saying that the Speaker had endorsed an erroneous document since it did not contain amendments proposed, adopted and passed in the chamber. Making use of the opportunity the Joint Opposition demanded that the government should introduce the bill afresh.

MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena said that the OMP Bill should be declared null as it was not passed in accordance with the Standing Orders. He recalled that it was not the first time the incumbent government was forced to withdraw bills it had presented to the House. MP Gunawardena was right for on the same day the government was forced to withdraw Value Added Tax (Amendment) Bill which had kept appearing on the Order Paper many days even after it had been declared null by the Supreme Court in its judicial review. Gunawardena asked the government how and why a Bill declared null and void by the Supreme Court was still on the Order Paper. It was listed in the Order Paper under Item No 29 as a Bill to be taken for debate. Leader of the House Minister Lakshman Kiriella was forced to announce that the government would withdraw it.

The incumbent government is notorious for presenting incomplete draft bills to the House and thereafter withdrawing them. Remember the bill it had brought to ban hate speech a few months ago? The government was forced to eat the humble pie and withdraw two bills namely the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill and the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill. On December 17, 2015 at the commencement of the business of the House, Kiriella announced that the two Bills would be withdrawn. The government decided to avoid taking up these Bills intended to restrict hate speech for debate, following opposition from various political parties and civil society organizations. Chief Government Whip and Minister Gayantha Karunathilake had presented the two Bills in Parliament on December 11, the same year. The government later decided to withdraw the Bills due to concerns raised by various segments in society that the Bills would hinder freedom of expression.

On October 6, 2015, Minister Kiriella had to announce that the government would withdraw The Telecommunication Levy (Amendment) Bill. It was he who had to announce the withdrawal of the Theravada Bhikku Kathikawath Bill which was intended to control alleged unruly conduct of Buddhist monks. Minister Kiriella is the one who has to be upfront at this unpleasant business of incomplete bills and withdrawing them all the time because he is the Leader of the House.

It is in this context that the lackadaisical conduct of parliament staff or the Speaker’s office came to light on Tuesday. It is a known fact that the Speaker would place his signature to documents brought by the officials to his desk for that purpose. Given his busy schedule he is not expected to cross check. There are officials under him paid to that job. Speaker Jayasuriya did the same and announced gloriously on Tuesday that the OMP bill had become law and soon found that the draft bill he signed was not complete.

MP Gunawardena was jubilant when he said "We have stated many times that this Bill cannot be considered as having been passed according to the provisions of the Standing Orders. We reiterate that the OMP Bill is null and void. That was why we asked for time to inform the House of the mistake the government had committed. This also happened when the government took a vote on a financial bill. Later it was corrected. We submitted 31 amendments to the OMP Bill and do not know what happened to them."

NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa also had choice words to utter: "I asked for a division when the Bill was taken up in this House. The Speaker might not have heard it because of the shouting. The Bill was rushed through the House in an arbitrary manner. The end result was that the Bill included amendments of the government and overlooked those submitted by the opposition. We opposed this Bill and therefore our amendments were not included. But then, how what about the amendments of those who supported the Bill? They have become frustrated today. This office is not about finding the truth about those gone missing in 1988-89 period. It is against the war heroes."

Once again the Leader of the House had to engage in damage-control: "I was really keen to participate in the debate on the OMP Bill. But, it was not we who disrupted the debate. The Opposition should have participated in the debate without invading the Well. The Bill was presented to this House on May 22. Had you had any opposition you could have gone to court. Now it is too late. The Speaker has placed his signature thereon. It contains all necessary amendments."

Chief Opposition Whip Anura Kumara Dissanayake had to object: "You as the Leader of the House should announce the time for amendments and should call for the amendments. The Hansard does not indicate any invitation from the Leader of the House. We should be given an opportunity to present those amendments again. Those who came to the Well did not want this Bill. Their intention was to deprive us of our right to participate in the debate. What we wanted was to present amendments to the Bill. The Chair could not follow procedure because of the disturbance in the middle of the Chamber. Bring the Bill before Parliament again and give us the opportunity to present amendments."

JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake had more to add: "We submitted our amendments to the Foreign Minister and the Speaker. I presented amendments in my speech, too. But those amendments are not in the Bill signed by the Speaker. It is not the Speaker who deprived us of our right but a small group of protesters. We should have the right to present our amendments."

Minister Kiriella told Parliament that he would discuss with Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera the about possibility of presenting the Bill again.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Thursday announced that the government was willing to amend the Office on Missing Persons Act to accommodate opposition’s amendments which had been missed during the third reading stage debate of the bill.

Apart from the Government’s carelessness coming to light, there was only one other incident that merit comment. President Maithripala Sirisena set a record as the first Sri Lankan head of state to make a condolence speech in Parliament by participating in the condolence vote on MP M.K.A.D.S. Gunawardena.  The President recalled that former MP Gunawardena had been a loyal friend and had stood by him when he decided to leave the government to contest the presidential polls of 2015. The President said Gunawardena had been the OIC of the Polonnaruwa police station before entering politics. Though Gunawardena entered parliament as a national list MP of the UNP after the last general election, he remained an SLFP member and never forgot to wear the blue Saataka (shawl), the President observed. Gunawardena would go down in history as the MP who never wore shoes or slippers, the President said.

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