The proposed amendment to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution to dilute the powers of Provincial Councils has already begun to make ripples in the Muslim and Left parties, Colombo Telegraph understands. SLFP ministers who talked big in the last few weeks that they would not allow any dilution of devolution have also been greatly embarrassed.
Colombo Telegraph understands that Muslim and Left party leaders who attended the party leaders’ meeting of the UPFA on Tuesday had kept mum when President Rajapaksa proposed the amendment. Ministers Tissa Vitarana and Rauf Hakeem are away from the country.
After having agreed to the amendment, apologists in the Muslim and Left parties have been telling party members that the amendment is a harmless one. According to them, the amendment was about the Concurrent List and has been necessitated by the Divineguma Bill judgement of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Shirani Banadranayake. Another amendment will be the deletion of the sections relating to the merger of adjacent provinces. These leaders have said that a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces will not happen now and therefore there was nothing wrong in supporting the proposal.
A constitutional lawyer to whom Colombo Telegraph spoke said that under the 13th Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act, Provincial Councils cannot initiate the merger of adjacent provinces. The initiative has to come from the President and no one else. Therefore, the fear that is spread by opponents of devolution that the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils can merge is totally without a basis.
On being asked about taking away other powers of the Provincial Councils as agreed to by party leaders, he stated that the Divineguma Bill decision was about the Provincial Council List and not the Concurrent List. Even now, Parliament can pass any Bill on a matter on the Concurrent List. It has only to ask for the views of the Provincial Councils but can disregard such views and pass the Bill by a simple majority.
The lawyer further stated that it was the Provincial Councils List that was in issue in the Divineguma Bill. As many sections of the Bill were on matters in the Provincial Councils List, the Supreme Court stated that the Bill must be sent to Provincial Councils to ascertain their views. The Court has also stated that as the Northern Provincial Council had not been elected, the Governor cannot give consent on behalf of the Council. So, it would be assumed that the Northern Provincial Council has not given its consent. The issue of the Northern Province will not arise after the Northern Council is elected, he added.
Under the 13th Amendment, if all Councils agree to a Bill on a matter in the Provincial Council List, Parliament can pass the Bill with a simple majority. If one or more Councils do not agree, the Bill must be passed by a two-thirds majority if it is to apply also to the Councils which did not agree. If the Bill is passed by a simple majority, it will apply only to the Councils that have consented.
What the new amendment seeks to do is to say that a Bill on a matter in the Provincial Council List will apply to all Councils if a majority of the Councils agree. This, he stated, would negate devolution. If the Government at the Centre has the support of at least 5 Provincial Councils, then it can impose a law on Opposition-controlled councils too. For example, if the UNP is in power in two provinces and the Government is in power in at least 5 provinces, those 5 Provincial Councils can help the Government to impose a law on the UNP-controlled Councils also. It would be worse for the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils, he stated.
A Provincial Council member of a Left party told Colombo Telegraph that the left parties cannot support any dilution of powers given by the 13th Amendment. “A large number of left activists were killed for supporting devolution and we have to honour their memory” he stated.
Colombo Telegraph however understands that Muslim and Left party leaders would not be prepared to jeopardize their ministerial positions by opposing the proposed amendment. In the case of the impeachment of the Chief Justice, only a simple majority was needed and therefore their support was not crucial. But for a constitutional amendment, a two-thirds majority is essential and these leaders would not want to offend President Rajapaksa, a political analyst in Colombo stated.
However, ordinary party members are likely to oppose any attempts by leaders to support the amendment. Colombo Telegraph understands that members of the SLMC in the East are already angry with the leadership for going along with the Government on every issue and not protecting the interests of the Muslims. Dissension is likely within the LSSP and CP too but members of the Democratic Left Front led by Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara is likely to go along with its leader.