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Alas a little too much a little too late

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The Prince of Kandy

The following article was also published on the Daily FT on Wednesday 21 April 2021 and at http://www.ft.lk/opinion/Alas-a-little-too-much-a-little-too-late/14-716542

The recent media focus and political activity on the Port City though incredible in terms of magnitude are far too late and sensational to have any impact on policy. What will come into law will be up to the Supreme Court. In other words, the law will unlikely be amended to help soothe public concern.

This is the second time something like this has happened. The 20th amendment to the constitution passed with initially no media speculation on what it entailed followed by media outcry again at a point too late to impact change.

This raises questions on a perverse media setup but more importantly on the state of political choice in the current system. This article hopes to contend that the SJB-SLPP set up would be the worst possible backdrop on which to pass a new constitution.

Both events

Given digitisation, interested readers could go back in time and read/watch the media content that preceded both the 20th amendment to the constitution and also to the Port City.

The 20th amendment in the final weeks to its passing was poorly discussed and overshadowed by the Brandix COVID-19 cluster. Allegations were made that management was both aware of the situation and acted in a manner that further endangered lives. Such allegations though incredibly serious have not been explored at any period afterwards by the very media institutions that were focused on the issue initially.

The Port City Agreement though released on the 28th of March was overshadowed by the Mrs World scandal and is currently going to be phased out by the Cardinals allegations on the Easter Sunday attacks. In between the 28th of March and the Wijedasa Rajapakse catalyst event, there was even a Press Release by the China Harbour Engineering Company on the proposed agreement.

We can go further back and look at the allegations on the Cricket World Cup in 2011 being fixed and how that resulted in the current Minister of Agriculture being elected on large margins. Again, this issue seems to have died once it served the purpose of distracting the people.

Not a question of reaction time

We all knew the Port City Agreement was coming. The government had suggested several months ago that it would be a major catalyst to investment and that it was due shortly.

Public opinion pieces should have been on hand on the issue. More astute readers would notice that the pieces currently published are rushed and are written by people who cannot afford to be rushed. Interested parties could have further looked to write publicly on what their concerns were beforehand and pivot policy outcomes on that basis.

Though the New Year would have resulted in a slight mellowing of the news cycle the extent to which the media ignored the issue shows collusion. The government was quite obviously trying to pull a fast one. It wasn’t that the media failed to catch it in time but rather that it didn’t inform the public of what any reasonable person would deem newsworthy.

The issue of Port City deserved at least the same amount of media resources given to the Hitler statement by Dilum Amunugama.

In comparison to the bond scam

Let’s take the Bond scam as the yardstick by which we measure media coverage. NewsFirst in its coverage of Ali Sabry’s press conference on the Port City broadcast a question linking potential foreign members of the Port City Commission with the foreign citizenship of Arjuna Mahendran.

In the same news program, they then showed Sajith Premadasa speaking in the backdrop of a wildlife setting in Hambantota (This was the electorate that he abandoned in the 2020 General Election). The backdrop was a major distraction. Why the hell was he trying to make this about environmentalism?

With the Bond scam coverage, we know what Arjuna Mahendran’s daughter looks like and even where they live. That was a blatant violation of privacy and unimportant to the coverage of the issue.

Who negotiated the Port City Agreement? Why is the Chinese Defence Minister coming to Sri Lanka? Who even are the senior members of the China Harbour Engineering Company in Sri Lanka? All things that are important but that you would not know if you take the media coverage.

Replaced by a non-current issue

The Port City Agreement is going to be replaced by the cardinal’s statements on the Easter Sunday attacks. This is already happening.

The Cardinal is a political player. If he was really just trying to be tactful on the issue, he would have rallied catholic public opinion in a manner forcing both major parties (SJB-SLPP) to promise timely action on the Easter Sunday attacks in a meaningful way before the 2019 Presidential election.

Is there some media regulation preventing a hard line of questioning on the Cardinal? Is he not available for comment? Those with access to the Messenger newspaper (Catholic weekly newspaper) can see what he is trying to do.

Pressuring Sirisena on the Provincial Councils

Sirisena though the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is the only major obstacle to the abolishment of the Provincial Councils. This is something that is not broadcast alongside the allegation that Political forces played a hand in the Easter Sunday attacks.

Sirisena does not care for the Provincial Councils but rather is playing a clever game of getting in the way. Much like he did from 2015 onwards he has continued as the major saboteur of government policy.

Why is neither of these issues brought up? Why is a Sri Lanka Freedom Party leader defending the Provincial Councils? Why is he getting in the way of government policy? What is he asking for in return?

The abolishment of the Provincial Councils would help the SLPP rebuild support from its base following this Port City agreement debacle. However, die-hard supporters must question if the government is using the issue to cover up their misdeeds and actively risking the delivery of ‘one country, one law’ by delaying implementation.

Doing it all at once

This is the real issue. If the abolishment of the Provincial Councils is bundled altogether with many other changes under a new constitution people will have to make quite a difficult decision at the time of the referendum. In other words, something SLPPers may want in the form of the abolishment of the Provincial Councils may come alongside something they don’t want like land reform.

The constitution will be the most important policy that this government aims to deliver. Why then is there more coverage favourable to the government on Pepper and Dairy than there is speculating on the constitution?

What does the SJB think the government is aiming to do with the constitution? What does civil society think? Hell, what does Viyathmaga think?

Conclusion

The SJB and SLPP are new parties with no real political ideology. Due to the Presidential system and major financial backing, they are able to continue as leadership cults.

The SJB has in no way implemented the party reform that they called for when they split from the UNP. Sajith Premadasa was not elected by the members of the SJB and it is unclear if he will continue to be the leader of the movement when he loses the next election.

The SLPP though cut from the cloth that created the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is well to the right of the United National Party. After all, in the face of considerable economic uncertainty, they have gone out of their way to promise the corporate sector guaranteed low-interest rates and taxation throughout their term in office.

All of this is of no concern to the media coverage. In a system where public opinion is not reflected in the media, it is expected that policy will be designed to benefit a select few. We collectively on both sides of the political aisle should come together and demand public discourse on the issue of the constitution or we as Sri Lankans would have fallen for the same trick three times.

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