Today, the government is required to submit to the Secretary General of Parliament amendments to the Appropriation Bill 2008, as ordered by the Speaker last Thursday in keeping with a recent Supreme Court (SC) ruling that Clauses 2 (1) and 6 (1) thereof are inconsistent with the Constitution and their passage requires either amendments or a two thirds majority. The government has undertaken to amend these clauses for want of a special majority in the House.
The government has taken a lot of flak over these provisions as, according to the SC, Clause 2 (1), does not set out a proper account of government expenditure for the financial year and Clause 6 (1) is in derogation of the control of public finance that should be exercised by Parliament, since it allows money allocated to the Development Activities Programme to be transferred to any other programme by order of the Secretary to the Treasury or by order either of a Deputy Secretary to the Treasury or of the Director of the National Budget, who may be authorised by the Secretary to the Treasury.
When the SC ruling was announced in Parliament last week, there was no excitement in the Opposition benches. Now, we know the reason: The genesis of Clause 6 (1) is in the Appropriation Act No 44 of 2003, introduced by the UNP-led UNF government. Ironically, this clause enabling the Treasury Chief to usurp powers of Parliament came into being under a government which vehemently advocated the supremacy of parliament vis- -vis a hostile president from the SLFP-led PA. The then Speaker Anura Bandaranaike, in a bid to safeguard the rights and privileges of Parliament, even confronted the SC over two interim orders that sought to restrain him from appointing a PSC on a motion to impeach the Chief Justice, as we pointed out on Friday. Strangely the same government chose to force Parliament to opt for self-castration through the Clause 6 (1)! And some of the UNF lawmakers who contributed to the `derogation` of powers of Parliament then are today on a witch hunt against scribes critical of the legislature, claiming to preserve the dignity of Parliament.
The UNF government could not have been unaware of the unconstitutionality of this clause, as one of the petitioners who moved the SC against the Appropriation Bill 2008 was a UNP stalwart, Themiya Hurulle. He wouldn`t have taken the trouble of going to court without knowing the legal position of the clause at issue. Was it a case of setting a thief to catch a thief?
UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake was quoted by The Sunday Island as saying the UNP never made use of Clause 6 (1). That is beside the point. Whether it was put into practice or not, the fact remains that the UNP made a contribution towards `derogation` of powers of Parliament Appropriation Bill 2003 contained a clause inconsistent with the Constitution and it was not passed without a two thirds majority or amendment. Therefore, it may be argued with the benefit of hindsight that the constitutionality of Appropriation Act No 44 of 2003 stands challenged five years later.
However, the government cannot in any way claim the UNF government`s responsibility for Clause 6 (1) in extenuation of its surreptitious move to retain that unconstitutional provision and its failed attempt at obfuscation via Clause 2 (1) of the current Appropriation Bill.
Both the SLFP and the UNP thus find themselves in the same dock like two incorrigible pickpockets, one already stealing from the public purse and the other impatiently awaiting an opportunity to do so.