Sajith woos urban voters with promise of inclusive economy, devolution

Laying out his policy proposals, the United National Party (UNP)’s unofficial presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa today called for, among other things, a mixture of Keynesian and neoliberal economics, a national wealth fund, affirmative action for women and maximum possible devolution of power within a unitary Sri Lanka.

Speaking at an interactive session held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute (LKI) in Colombo, flanked by his ministerial colleagues Dr. Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickremeratne and Ajith P. Perera, Premadasa articulated his policy objectives to a largely English-speaking, Colombo-centric audience.

On the economic front, he said, if Sri Lanka is to develop and thrive in the international economy, an export-based economic development model must be followed. When it comes to growth, the Minister of Housing said, the greatest value addition is found in growth based on manufacturing.

Pointing to what he called a structural crisis in the country’s social strata, Premadasa said the status quo is a result of skewed prejudicial economic policies that have favoured one particular sector of society over the rest of the population.

“I firmly believe in the model of shared prosperity and inclusive growth. As macroeconomic targets, we should aim at low inflation, minimal unemployment, high exports, low budget deficits, debt reduction, achieving high national disposable income, maximum utilisation of scarce resources, and high foreign direct investment (FDI),” he said.

In order to achieve this, Premadasa proposed a combination of different schools of economic thought.

“There are a number of models and theories which a variety of decision-makers espouse. On the one hand, you have the Keynesian aggregate-demand management model, and at the other extreme, you have the typical free-market Friedrich Hayek, Milton Freidman neoliberal economic model. What’s more suited to our country, I believe, is a mixture of these two models which possess the major attributes in spurring economic growth,” he said.

The Minister emphasised the need to achieve economic prosperity by empowering small and medium entrepreneurs (SMEs) and also through geographically targeted policy approaches such as British Prime Minister Margeret Thatcher’s Enterprise Zone Policy of the 1980s – something his father, late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, had later emulated through garment factories.

Premadasa highlighted four prerequisites for prosperity: Establishing structures that promote sound decision making which ultimately results in positive policy resultants, identifying national priorities to be incorporated into the governance agenda, ensuring fast-tracked, time-targeted policy implementation, and a thorough monitoring and feedback mechanism.

In his nearly 30-minute, rather measured speech, Premadasa referred to a number of US presidents whose policies he seemingly draws inspiration from: namely, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier initiative, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society project, and Ronald Reagen’s highly contested “Reaganomics” drive.

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“One can come to the conclusion of a common thread here. The process was structured and rational. On most occasions, meritocracy gained primacy over other considerations. Specialists, generalists, experts, research-based think tanks provided the main policy inputs. The policy resultants were a product of thorough analysis, information assimilation, and a scrupulous examination of facts and details,” he said.

Sri Lankan leaders, by contrast, has had a markedly different approach to policy, Premadasa went on to say.

“My experience in the last decade in Sri Lankan governmental policy formulation is far different from the policymaking models adopted by the great leaders of the world. Ours is a system which is primarily ad hoc, personality and cult-driven, disjointed, haphazard and the consequences of such a process are policy resultants that are detrimental to the national interest,” he said, calling for a coherent decision-making structure when dealing with national priorities and when determining the national agenda.

With respect to the national question, Premadasa advocated 13 Plus, as has been tradition for the UNP for some time now.

“If I may go back a few years, you had the hilarious situation where the external affairs minister and the then executive president making various utterances to suit those respective stakeholders and constituencies. I’m sure you vividly remember the occasions where the head of state and the Minister of Foreign Affairs used to talk about 13 Plus when they were abroad, which became 13 Minus as soon as they came back to Sri Lanka. As far as I’m concerned, my consistent principle is maximum devolution within a unitary Sri Lanka,” he said.

However, he said, the unitary Sri Lanka thus envisaged has to be worth the paper it is written on.

“When I say unitary Sri Lanka, I mean people of all religions, ethnicities, economic, social and various other backgrounds should, in their heart of hearts, believe in the unitary character. The mere word unitary for me would not suffice. We have to educate, we have to initiate processes and legislations, policy instruments or policy tools to ensure that in the hearts and minds of all Sri Lankans feel it, and not just on paper,” said Premadasa.

“In order to do so, we have to eradicate racism from our society. We have to fight against discrimination and prejudice. There cannot be pogroms, there cannot be xenophobia,” he said, to applause from the audience.

The Minister also advocated affirmative action with regard to protecting the interests of women.

“I fervently believe in positive discrimination towards promoting the rights of women in our country. I think, in focusing on women and focusing on people as a whole, there has to be purposeful government intervention,” he said.

The presidential aspirant also proposed a national wealth fund similar to those in Scandinavian countries in order to empower future Sri Lankans.

“We have a policy proposal for a national wealth fund where all Sri Lankans will be given the freedom to contribute to that fund. This will be a fund that will not be touched. It will act as security, or a kind of wealth guarantee which may be used in times and circumstances of national disaster, God forbid,” he said.

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