The Speaker and government MPs have raised concerns over Sri Lanka opposition leader Sajith Premadasa allegedly taking up parliament’s time during a budget debate using a special privilege afforded to him.
Government members including Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe on Friday December 01 took issue with Premadasa purportedly abusing a special privillege afforded to him under 27/2 of parliament’s standing orders to raise questions.
The opposition leader’s questions concerned an ongoing controversy surrounding Sri Lanka Cricket, with Friday’s questions specifically focused on a matter pertaining to LED screens that he claimed had been under-invoiced.
“I’d like to reveal a serious tragedy unfolding at this instance. At three cricket grounds – Pallekele, Dambulla and R Premadasa in Colombo – had ordered three 60 ft by 3 LED screens. The tender for these screens was opened on July 14, 2023. But before the tender was opened on July 14, part of the money had already been sent the 13th: 29,000 US dollars.”
Premadasa called this a matter of “national importance”.
Sri Lanka Customs officials are at “this very moment” engaged in a raid, he said. The opposition leader said only 6.5 million rupees had been levied as tax for these screens, “centred around the 29,000 dollars and under-invoiced”. He claimed that the three screens should cost at least 150,000 dollars.
State Minister of Finance Semasinghe said Sri Lanka Customs was already investigating the matter and they will reach a conclusion at the end of the inquiry.
Premadasa said the companies that brought the allegedly under-invoiced LED screens were now attempting to remove them. He acknowledged, however, that Customs was indeed engaged in a raid.
Semasinghe said that a new precedent has been created in parliament that Standing Order 27/2 is being used to raise a host of questions that require a response.
The opposition leader then raised a second question about postponing elections, asking when the long-postponed local government elections are due to be held.
Prime Minister Gunawardena said that under Standing Order 27/2, the opposition leader and other party leaders have a certain privilege.
The clause reads: “The Secretary-General shall, upon receipt of any notice in respect of any question, unless the Speaker rules any question out of order, include in the Order Book for answer on a day not earlier than seven clear days from the day on which the notice was given:
Provided that, any question relating to a matter of urgent public importance may be asked by the Leader of the Opposition or a leader of a recognised political party at the conclusion of questions after due notice has been given to the Minister concerned.”
“Have you made a new standing order?” the premier asked Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.
“Parliament cannot function this way. The opposition leader can ask questions about a fire or some other emergency anytime without going on and on,” said Gunawardena.
Premadasa responded that, according to Erskine May’s ‘A treatise on the law, privileges, proceedings and usage of Parliament’, the opposition leader is traditionally afforded this privilege.
“I asked two bad questions. One was about corruption in cricket. The other was about postponing the election,” he said.
State Minister Semasinghe complained that parliament’s time has been taken up by other matters during a budget debate.
“We have been ready for a debate on the budget for over two weeks. But every day, instead of discussing the budget, without talking about this complex economic issue, we talk about everything else,” he said, adding that 606 minutes have been taken up for these discussions.
The Speaker concurred.
“I also feel the opposition leader has abused the special privilege afforded to him. Let’s try to prevent that. We will start the process to make necessary amendments to standing orders for that soon,” he said.
Premadasa, however, defended his questions, claiming that the cricket question was to do with state revenue and was therefore very relevant to the budget.
“There are three major avenues for government revenue: the Inland Revenue Department, the Excise Department and Customs. I presented this issue with Sri Lanka Cricket about under-invoicing and the resultant impact on revenue that should’ve come in. When I’m showing a corrupt irregularity (horayak) with SLC through this, I don’t understand why these people get excited. I was talking about government revenue,” he said.
Semasinghe responded: “We’re agreeable to discussing increasing state revenue. But the problem is, when Customs itself is investigating this…. We must discuss things that are not being investigated. There is no need to come here and discuss an investigation that officials there have already commenced. It’s fine if that investigation is not being conducted properly, but we as ministers have to decide whether we respond if the discussion is being dragged out.”