Wednesday, 24 May 2017 10:28

Timely Cabinet reboot sees Finance, Foreign Affairs swap

The much awaited Cabinet reshuffle finally took place on Monday morning following the swearing in of nine Cabinet ministers whose portfolios were shuffled.

Incidentally, the changes occurred exactly on the 45th anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a Republic on May 22, 1972. President Maithripala Sirisena alluded to this fact in his speech to the newly appointed ministers.

In a number of cases, a few more subjects were added to their existing portfolios, but the complete list of subjects and departments/institutions coming under their purview will be gazetted. The reshuffle was talked about and speculated on for more than six months, during which time President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ironed out various issues pertaining to this change. It was generally felt all around that a reboot was necessary to raise the momentum as the Government heads into 2020.

The key change was Finance and Foreign Affairs which was swapped between Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Karunanayake. The other portfolios that were changed were that of Arjuna Ranatunga, Mahinda Samarasinghe, and Gayantha Karunatilleke and Chandima Weerakkody while others received more responsibilities. They are S.B. Dissanayake, W.D.J. Seneviratne and Mahinda Amaraweera. It was reported that many ministers of the UNP did not favour a reshuffle at this stage, but this seems to have been resolved with the intervention of the prime minister.

Tilak Marapone a minister of the 2002-2004 UNF Government and Law and Order Minister of the present government who resigned following the Avant Garde controversy was reappointed as a minister. Marapone made a speech which was seen as being favourable to Avant Garde, which is under investigation. This prompted calls for his sacking or resignation and Marapone did the latter. This time Marapone has been appointed as Minister of Development Assignments. The exact tasks of the Minister and his Ministry are also not yet clear, though the Gazette notification on ministry subjects may make it clearer.

The earlier impression was that portfolios belonging to the UNP would be shuffled among the UNP members while the portfolios belonging to the SLFP would be shuffled among the SLFP members. This however was changed when Arjuna Ranatunga (UNP) was asked to take over the Petroleum Resources Ministry which was held by Chandima Weerakkody of the SLFP and Ports and Shipping went to Mahinda Samarasinghe (SLFP appointed Parliamentarian). The two ministries ports and petroleum resources are equally poised and are vital to the Nation’s well-being.

It could however be described as a mini reshuffle where the major ministries remained intact much to the disappointment of certain quarters which were expecting a bigger reshuffle.

New look Government

President Maithripala Sirisena a few weeks ago declared that he was inclined towards making a few changes in the portfolios held by ministers while addressing the heads of media institutions in Colombo. In fact he wanted a new look Government with an anticipated change in the bureaucratic line up too.

He promised that it would take place before Vesak. However it took some more time for him to make a final decision owing to political exigencies and other commitments such as the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The President met with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to convince him on the need to effect changes to the Cabinet. They also met with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in a bid to iron out differences that may crop up during discussions.

By Sunday there was a flurry of back room moves to create a favourable atmosphere for the required changes. Several key officials of both parties shuttled across with suggestions and proposals and finally Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met with his group to discuss and explain the circumstances that led to the change in portfolios.

Minister Ravi Karunanayake however was an unhappy man since he felt that he had done his best for the country driving it through the path of economic recovery. His latest comment said that the government would not impose any more taxes to burden the people since the economy had shown signs of recovery with the IMF were also giving thumbs up for Sri Lanka.

The economy was virtually in shambles when the UNP-SLFP unity government took over the reins the government and the Finance Minister made a relentless effort to get the economy back on track so much so that the Banker Magazine recognised the input of Karunanayake and awarded best Finance Minister Title for Asia and Pacific. However, Karunanayake’s decision to impose a higher band of VAT on a range of goods and services proved to be very unpopular and there were many calls for his head. The problem is not one of Karunanayake’s making – Sri Lanka has only a limited number of income tax payers and most other government revenue comes from indirect taxes. But the fact that VAT was imposed on several essential sectors such as health did not endear him to the public.

Minister Navin Dissanayake said recently that the practice of the Executive dominating over the finance portfolio came to an end with the appointment of a talented person to handle the finance portfolio. Minister Dissanayake said Karunanayake took over dried coffers and he had performed well.

There was a period when the Finance Ministry portfolio was held by the President himself, but this practice was discontinued with the appointment of Sarath Amunugama as Finance Minister by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. President Mahinda Rajapaksa however kept the portfolio to himself.

Insiders say both the President and the Prime minister were on the same note in their decision to swap Karunanayake’s portfolio with that Mangala Samaraweera who will also oversee the media as per the new portfolio. Though Karunanayake was given Foreign Affairs he still has a few more attachments of a financial nature with Development Lottery, National Lotteries Board and the Mahapola Trust Fund coming under his purview. However Karunanayake has adopted a wait and see policy until the gazette notification giving details of his new assignment is published.

The understanding is that the Foreign Ministry will now spearhead a campaign for more investments in Sri Lanka through its missions organising various investment related workshops and activities. In addition he may have to play major role in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts and to devise an acceptable accountability mechanism to resolve the residual issues of the thirty year long war. It may be totally different to the war time effort and there would be a crucial task ahead of him. However, Karunanayake has cultivated friendships with many envoys, finance ministers, heads of multilateral agencies and world leaders during his tenure as Finance Minister, which will help him to cope with his new highly demanding job.

Finance would no doubt be a new experience for Mangala Samaraweera who has a wealth of experience in foreign affairs. He too was a bit reluctant but finally accepted the portfolio of finance and media. Samaraweera is known as a fast learner and adopter who can grow well into any role and responsibility. He will no doubt learn more about his onerous responsibilities in the coming days and weeks, especially since the Budget 2018 is just six-seven months away. Samaraweera’s ample foreign contacts will also be useful – he has personal contacts with many foreign and finance ministers from around the world, not to mention the heads of multilateral agencies.

No stranger to Media Ministry

On the other hand, Samaraweera is no stranger to the Media Ministry, having held it under President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s Government. In Government or Opposition and through his own political changes, Samaraweera has always maintained a close rapport with the media, which should come in handy in his role.

The other most interesting development was the appointment of Mahinda Samarasinghe as Ports and Shipping Minister. Minister Arjuna Ranatunga’s decision to appoint his brother to a key position did not go down well with most people and the unions were also at loggerheads with him on many issues. His handling of the Hambantota port deal was also called into question. Samarasinghe is generally deemed a better bet for such negotiations with his international experience. In a climate where the opposition campaigns against the port development too have become subdued, perhaps due to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa realisng that it would not do any good to antagonise China unnecessarily, Samarasinghe will probably be able to fine tune the agreement to be even more favourable to Sri Lanka. Ranatunga cannot complain, since he has got a very good ministry that has a lot of potential for the future as oil exploration efforts are now underway. Let’s hope that he does not commit those same mistakes again.

Gayantha Karunatilake developed a close relationship with the media during his tenure as media minister, though it is not yet known at this state whether he will continue as a spokesman for the Government, often offering a less controversial view of things, unlike his Cabinet colleague Minister Rajitha Senaratne. (Incidentally, many who waited for Rajitha’s ouster had to be disappointed as his portfolio remains intact). Gayantha is back on familiar territory as Lands Minister.

Three new subject areas were introduced in the cabinet change, though they were all added to the portfolios of current ministers. They are Kandyan Heritage (Minister S.B. Dissanayake), Mahaweli Development (state minister position given to Minister Mahinda Amaraweera) and Sabaragamuwa Development (Minister W.D. J. Seneviratne). All three ministers retain their existing ministries and subjects as well. Although there was an expectation that some deputy ministers could be elevated as full ministers, nothing of the sort materialised. No further main Cabinet changes are likely for this year at least, but there could be changes in deputy and state ministerial posts, according to Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake.

With Marapone back in the Cabinet, the number of Cabinet ministers has gone up to 44, a far cry from the 30 ministers earlier promised. However this is an inevitable result of the collaborative nature of a coalition Government, where individuals have to be given positions to ensure their loyalty and support. But there is increased media and public scrutiny of the expenditures of various ministers and miniseries and ministers should bear in mind that they should work round the clock for their country. They should watch their expenses. It is all too easy to do something wrong and earn the wrath of the voting public. Indeed, entire Governments have had to “go home” owing to the actions of a few ministers.

Addressing the Ministers and other people’s representatives after the swearing-in of the new Cabinet Ministers, President Sirisena said a Cabinet reshuffle was made to march forward as a country with new hopes and aspirations. He stressed that the changes did not necessarily mean any of the ministers had underperformed. Rather it was necessary to infuse new blood and new thinking into certain segments, he said. He urged all ministers and MPs to work even more vigorously for the welfare of the people.

President’s visit to Australia

This was the last major function attended by President Sirisena before leaving on a State visit to Australia, the first to that country by a Sri Lankan Head of State after several decades. The President will discuss bilateral issues with Australian leaders and sign several agreements. The two countries, both members of the Commonwealth, have traditionally had excellent relations. Australia was one of the few developed countries that stood by Sri Lanka which faced increasing HR concerns after the conflict ended in 2009. Australia worked closely with Sri Lanka to resolve the migrant boat problem, With SriLankan starting direct flights to Melbourne at the end of the year, people-to-people contact will be enhanced greatly.

The GMOA’s political motives are increasingly becoming apparent as it launched yet another 24-hour islandwide strike to protest SAITM. Desperate patients interviewed by TV channels had very harsh words for doctors, who everyone agreed had lost trust and standing among the public. The Government had made several far-reaching proposals to resolve the SAITM issue but the GMOA does not seem to be interested. This is a lamentable situation, as it is the innocent patients who get victimised in the end. Both the authorities and the GMOA/SLMC should expedite the negotiations in this regard. (Daily News)

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