- But another fact the people are concerned is the 99 year lease time period. If the lease time period could be shortened then the people in the area will be calmer
- It is normal to have different opinions inside a coalition of several political parties. But our duty is to minimise such disruption
- The SLFPers who are with the President and the Joint Opposition must definitely come to a common platform
The government has taken steps to initiate a special program in 2017 to save the country from poverty and to rebuild the economy of the people, Labour and Labour Relations Minister John Seneviratne said. Pointing out that it is natural to have differences of opinion and disputes inside a coalition government while working together due to contrasting policies, the Minister said that he and his fellow SLFPers have joined hands with the government with a national objective. In an interview with The Sunday Leader, the Minister said that the future of the coalition would be decided once the intended objectives have been achieved within the promised time period.
The following are excerpts of the interview.
by Ashanthi Warunasuriya
Q: The most controversial topic these days is related to the proposed deal between the government and a Chinese company on the Hambantota port and the acquisition of 15,000 acres of land in the area. People in these areas are tensed due to this matter. What is the government’s stance on this issue?
A: According to my opinion there is no problem with this project. China at present is a highly developed country. If we could join hands with China then we could get the best use out of the Hambantota port and the Mattala Airport due to the massive industrialisation of China. But this initiative could have been carried out in a smoother way. It is true that the people have become tensed. The acquisition of 15,000 acres is an alarming number. But the government is still in the middle of negotiations on this matter. So these matters would be reconsidered.
Hambantota is the adjourning district to my electorate. There is hope among the people that this partnership would create more jobs and ultimately rapid development in these areas. But another fact the people are concerned is the 99 year lease time period.
Q: If the government has identified the lapses in the agreement, as a senior minister of the government, what are your suggestions to rectify them?
A: If the lease time period could be shortened then the people in the area will be calmer.
Q: Has it been included in the discussions?
A: I recently visited China to discuss this matter. They too are closely monitoring our situation. I have discussed this matter with them. They are willing to come to Sri Lanka to carry out development projects. These matters could be solved through bilateral negotiations. I believe it would be for the best for both parties.
Q: The coalition government has now passed its 2 year milestone. But do you believe that the government has been able to achieve its intended targets?
A: Although two years have passed it was only after September 2016 that a true understanding started to work out between the SLFP and the UNP. Accordingly, about1 1/2 years have passed now. During this time period we were able to take some positive measures towards our intended goals such as constitutional amendments, economic policy and electoral reforms. It takes time to achieve these goals. We are discussing as to what we should do. For an example the constitution reforms are nearing completion. It will not include any provision that is harmful to the country. But we must use this opportunity to solve the burning problems in this country. The stance of the SLFP is immensely important in this regard. We cannot go on with a racially biased position. It is only going to create disharmony among ethnic groups and causing the reversal of the country’s development. That is the misfortune we have been suffering for a long time. We must understand this as a nation. There should be a agreeable level of power sharing among communities. We must go for a compromise in this matter. But that does not mean we are splitting the country. Our intention must be to weed out the harmful aspects and to ensure the protection of the rights and freedoms of all the people in this country.
Q: You have joined hands with the unity government to create good governance in this country. But why hasn’t it been achieved so far?
A: Yes. We joined the coalition government to establish good governance in the country. The Yahapalana theme was something they had brought in the election campaign. We never had much hope about Yahapalanaya. If we had such hopes then it would be impossible for us to stay in the government. We joined hands with the government to achieve several things that are beyond the Yahapalana manifesto. In the last General Election no Political Party was able to secure a majority in the parliament to form a government. It’s a known fact. In such circumstances if the UNP had joined hands with minority parties then the country could have gone astray. So the two main political parties had to join hands to ensure a moderate rule. It was the most democratic solution available at that time. That was our sole intention. We still love the SLFP. We would never leave this party. Our sole intention is to protect the party and to protect the territorial integrity of the country.
Q: The internal rifts in the UNP and the SLFP have now become a known fact. Why are SLFP MPs accusing the UNPers?
A: This is happening on both sides. It is natural to see criticism like this in a coalition government. For an example this was common during the Unity government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It is normal to have different opinions inside a coalition of several political parties. But our duty is to minimise such disruptions. We do not have to remain in the coalition forever. But we must keep the promises we made to the people and to work for the betterment of the country. In our political history there are times when different political parties have joined hands to achieve national goals.
Q: But the SLFP supporters are accusing that the party’s policies have not been protected. What is your response to that allegation?
A: We have joined with government in order to fulfill a national interest. We have not lost our political identity. We have to face the oncoming elections as a separate political party. We have that politics in ourselves. We must protect our voters. We must work for their betterment. At present voters from both main parties are discouraged. So we must free the people from such positions. That is our duty as SLFP representatives. Over 5.2 Million people have voted for the SLFP. We are not prepared to betray their future. Although we are prepared to form a programme to go for an election under the SLFP, the members of both parties are not willing to work well without a government of their own. That has now become clear.
Q: Does that mean the SLFP would contest alone in 2020?
A: Yes. The SLFP will contest separately in 2020. That has been accepted by all the stakeholders including the UNP. Our goal is to help the Yahapalana government to carry out the programmes that would drive the country forward whilst protecting our political identity.
Q: There are rumors circulating these days about President Maithripala Sirisena running for another term in 2020 with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the PM candidate. Is that true?
A: There are various stories going around. The Secretary of the Party has also made a statement in that regard. It was proposed in the discussions held between us as well. The President would soon make a statement on that matter. But before that we must decide whether to keep the office of Executive Presidency in the new constitution. If the Office is to remain then President Maithripala Sirisena will contest for another term. We see Gotabaya Rajapaksa coming forward as a political figure. It has become clear when we talk with people. I do not know what party he would choose. But the people have a positive attitude towards him. He has an opportunity to join hands with the SLFP and to continue his political career. At this moment we must forget trivial issues for the common good. At present Maithripala Sirisena is the leader of the party. So we must accept that.
Q: Will the SLFP survive without a Mahinda-Maithri collaboration?
A: The SLFPers who are with the President and the Joint Opposition must definitely come to a common platform. We all have a good feeling about Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although these disputes have mainly occurred due to mudslinging of the UNP we must stay united. We hope that the former President Rajapaksa would help the SLFP to thrive in future.
Q: What is your opinion about SLFPers contesting under the PJP in the next election?
A: That is not a wise move. We do not see a trend in SLFPers defecting to the PJP. Hardcore SLFPers do not like such a move. They have clearly stated that they are not willing to take part in such an agreement. What they want is to ensure the victory of the SLFP. The only problem with most of the SLFPers is the difficulty in working with the UNP. That is why some SLFP members have decided to sit in the opposition. That was allowed by the President. So in the future we have no problem in getting their support to take the party towards victory. If not there is no future for the Party.
Q: Are the talks continuing to come to such as arrangement?
A: It is being discussed by representatives of both parties.
Q: So can we expect such an agreement in future?
A: If all the stakeholders can properly understand what is going on then we have high hopes that such an agreement could be made in the near future.
Q: What is your response to the allegations that have been made against the government for postponing the local government election?
A: The delimitation committee that was appointed to look into the matter has not released its report. But that has not yet been handed over to the subject minister. After the proper procedure is complete it would be gazetted.
Q: What are your comments on the allegations of abolishing the EPF/ETF schemes?
A: We are vigilant of such moves. The central bank is responsible for handling such funds. So the Labor minister has no right to involve in the decision making process regarding the EPF/ETF fund investment. That is being done by the Treasury. There are various discussions going on regarding these funds at present. So we must wait and see what plans are going to be implemented.
Q: The year 2017 has been termed as the year to eradicate poverty. What are the programmes your ministry is intending to initiate to achieve this objective?
A: I am currently working towards the welfare of semi-government workers. We plan to look into their job security, protection and welfare. These workers provide an immense service to the country’s development. The private sector and sustainable development are both areas that come under the purview of our ministry. So we must raise the awareness of the people on these issues.
Q: What are the economic plans of the government for the year 2017?
A: The Prime Minister has issued a plan for the year 2017. So the government officials and the general public should support these initiatives. For an example, a lot more attention would be paid this year for the development of the agricultural sector. We have raised the problems in the Agricultural sector many times at Cabinet Meetings. At present the agriculture sector is not performing well in Sri Lanka. When it comes to industries, there is a need to find new markets. We must improve the quality of our productions. All these are parts of the plan to eradicate poverty in this year.
Q: Will there be any more political witch-hunts in 2017 as well?
A: During the past the people were fed up of political revenge taking. There is no point in recalling the past. If we are to look for misdeeds of the previous governments then we have to check for the misdeed done by several governments in the past. Then we would have no time to do anything else. The President and the Prime Minister have understood this situation. They have come to an agreement to give priority for the development of the country. So without going behind previous wrongdoings we must work towards ensuring a productive output for the people.
Q: Finally, are you not happy with the government’s conduct?
A: This is a coalition government. So it is different from a government with a single policy. So we do not have the level of freedom we normally enjoy in a one party government. Therefore we must be careful in taking decisions not to harm the rights of all stakeholders. That is the only way to minimise disputes. We joined hands with the government with a purpose. So we cannot run amok like school children. Our effort may not be 100%successful. We have agreed upon a specific time period for our coalition. When it ends we would decide what to do next.