Professor G.L. Peiris’ statement at the Cabinet media briefing that the Government would bring in at the committee stage of the Port City Commission Bill all amendments suggested by the Supreme Court indicates that the Court has ruled that several provisions of the Bill require approval by the People at a Referendum. The Court’s determination will be read out by the Speaker in Parliament when it meets next on 18 May. But, as required by the Constitution, a copy would have been sent by the Court to the President and Peiris is no doubt privy to the determination.
No one expects the Court to have struck down the Bill in its entirety. But even a determination that some clauses of the Bill require a Referendum in addition to a two-thirds majority in Parliament is a big defeat for the Government. Whether the Supreme Court has had the courage to strike down some of the most controversial clauses that obviously impinge on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka as an independent nation and the sovereignty of the People is to be seen.
At the hearing into the challenges to the Bill, many questions were put by the five-member bench of the Court to the Attorney-General and private counsel who appeared for the Secretary to the President. That the Secretary to the President, obviously on the instructions of the President, did not wish to be represented by the Attorney-General is itself an indictment on the latter. Be that as it may, lawyers in Hulftsdorp observed that not many questions were put to the counsel for the petitioners on the first two days of the hearing, prompting some to think that the Court would be reluctant to go against a powerful and abrasive President. But when the Chief Justice himself and the other judges questioned the Attorney-General and other counsel who appeared for intervenient-petitioners supporting the Bill, there was hope that several clauses may be declared as requiring a Referendum, which prompted one black-coated cynic to quip- “Machan, don’t be naive. It was the same in Gota’s dual-citizenship case.”
While the Government would have no option but to fall in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling and make committee-stage amendments to avoid a Referendum that it would most likely lose, there is concern in Opposition circles that the Governments may introduce provisions that had not been scrutinized by the Supreme Court. Readers would remember how the Yahapalanaya Government made a mockery of Parliament in 2017 by introducing committee stage amendments that were materially different to the original Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Bill that had been examined by the Supreme Court. Although the Joint Opposition (present Pohottuwa camp) made a hue and cry at that time and even added a provision to the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution that a committee stage amendment shall not deviate from the “merits and principles” of the Bill, the number of judges of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal was increased by a committee stage amendment! Such an amendment would only require a certificate of the Attorney-General. With a pliant Attorney-General’s Department and one of the worst Speakers Sri Lanka has ever had, the Government should not have any difficulty in moving and passing any amendment.