The hedging deal stirs a hornet’s nest in the House

The hedging deal stirred a hornet’s nest in the House after four years following the order by a London commercial court that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) should pay US $ 162 million along with interests accrued to Standard Chartered Bank as compensation. The government has appealed against the ruling in a higher court in England. Yet, the opposition seized the opportunity to take on the government, and eventually they brought it up before Parliament on Tuesday.

Shortly after question time at around 1.30 pm on the day, the House resorted to day’s business with JVP parliamentary group leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake on his feet, a common sight of the latter, to raise an issue of national importance under the Standing Order 23-2, and this time, it was on the hedging deal. When, the vociferous MP uttered a few words with a tone which was obviously not to the liking of the ruling coalition, Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva opposed Mr. Dissanayake’s tirade . Mr. de Silva, argued quite emphatically that anything related to the hedging transaction could not be raised in the House.

Arguments and counter arguments ensued in the House between the members of either side, with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe too coming to the rescue of Mr. Dissanayake in defending his stand that he should be allowed to make his statement on the hedging deal. The opposition members tried to drive home the point that there could not be any barrier in terms of Standing Orders or parliamentary traditions to discuss the matters pertaining to the hedging issue. The government took the opposite stand and said the subjudice law did not provide for it because the hedging case was being heard in international courts of law at the moment. Arguments by each side were sometimes unconvincing to ordinary observers. 

The crux of the opposition’s argument was that the hedging deal was a matter lying with an international court of law, and that it could be discussed or debated in Parliament here without any problem.  For them, the subjudice law is applicable to cases lying with local courts only.

Having listened to the views of the legislators across the political divide of the House, the Speaker said that he would give his ruling on Thursday after a deep study into the matter. Also, he said that he would take into account various interpretations of the law by the MPs in this regard and weigh the pros and cons accordingly.

Mr. Dissanayake, in his anxiety to get a ruling as soon as possible, asked the Speaker to announce the ruling on Wednesday itself.

Neither he nor anyone would have anticipated that the ruling would go down in parliamentary history of this country. Undoubtedly, the ruling will serve as a precedent for those who represent the Legislature in future. 

In his ruling, Speaker Rajapaksa cited that he studied the subjudice law which defined that any matter taken up in court could not be discussed or debated   in Parliament because it could influence the process of delivering judgments or rulings by the judges concerned.  In conformity with law, the Speaker rejected the opposition’s argument that any matter being heard in an international court of law could be debated here.

The Speaker noted that anything discussed here could easily be communicated to anywhere in the world today due to the advent of internet media. Also, he highlighted that the hedging   deal was not a case merely between two different individuals.

“The country is a party to this case. The MP concerned himself has admitted that the amount of money involved in the case as colossal,” he said. 

Also, he rejected UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s argument that the subjudice law was applicable only to civil cases.

The Speaker communicated to the House that even issues pending before international courts of law could not be debated in Parliament. To support his argument, he has taken into consideration the ground realities such as the development of internet media hich have brought about evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the global mass communication industry. ‘Information related to any incident is available to the global masses today at a click of a button.  If anything discussed here on the hedging deal, it may reach the panel of judges of those international courts. May be, any revelation in Parliament with regard to the matter may influence them in delivering any ruling -either positive or negative.’

All in all, a grey area exists if the repressive nature of the ruling did not prevent an issue of national importance to be discussed in Parliament; as the supreme authority overseeing public finances. He only omitted the controversial parts of Mr. Dissaayake’s speech, and allowed it to be raised under the Standing Order 23-8 the next day.

The impartiality of the Speaker’s ruling can be gauged from the fact that even Mr. Dissanayake, appeared to be pleased with it on the day it was announced. 

The ruling comes at a time when there are allegations by various observers that the conduct of parliamentarians has been relegated to a substandard level. Of course, those in the public and media galleries, from time to time, have witnessed scenes unbecoming of the august assembly. On some occasions, even the presence of school children does not prove a deterant. Disturbing of members or casting aspersions at them have in fact become common phenomena. Often the use of unparliamentary language has caused observers, mostly school children, to virtually cover up their faces in sheer embarrassment.

Interestingly, this ruling   has a parallel to yet another ruling given by late Speaker Anura Bandaranaike who ruled that Parliament was supreme and that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to issue interim orders restraining the Speaker in respect of the steps he is empowered to take under Standing Order 78(a).

The ruling was delivered on June 20, 2001, ten years and one month before the present ruling.

The late Speaker stated in his ruling that

n The Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to issue the interim orders restraining the Speaker of Parliament in respect of the steps he is empowered to take under Standing Order 78(a).

n The aforesaid interim orders dated 6th June 2001 are not binding on the Speaker of Parliament.

n There are no legal obligations to comply with the said orders.”

It may be useful for Parliament itself to reconsider the entire subject of privileges instead of going back to the original Parliamentary Privileges Act. Under the existing law, amendments made to the Parliamentary Privileges Act from 1978 have been contentious issues subject to much debate.

Further, maintaining its supremacy it would be good for Parliament to review the need for Standing Order 78(a) which was rushed through in the haste to appoint a Select Committee, to probe statements of former Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon.

During this parliamentary week, the House devoted much of its time to pay tribute to three late Ministers namely E.LB. Hurulle, Ebert Fernando and Tyronne Fernando. The business committee of the House has done so to clear the backlog of votes of condolence on numerous MPs who represented Parliament in the past.

On Thursday, the question time was livened by several important issues raised by the opposition on the import of substandard drugs and the human rights violations.

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