The march of folly Our mad Cabinet system
I discussed last week the absurdity of how appointments are made to the Cabinet. But the problem goes deeper than that, in that we have completely perverted the whole concept of Cabinet government, and then multiplied the problem by having massive Cabinets. Indeed the 19th Amendment, contrary to the pledge in the President's manifesto, practically entrenched this, by introducing provision for what is described as a National Government, with no effort at all to define what that might mean.
So we now have a government that certainly does not represent the nation, since it is clear that parties representing a majority of the Sinhalese and a majority of the Tamils are not in government. Only the Muslims can claim that, and even that perhaps may soon be in doubt, given the breach that has developed between Rauff Hakeem and Hassen Ali, who is one of the few Muslim politicians who can claim to be a man of principles. He was one of the five members on the government side who did not vote for the impeachment of the then Chief Justice, the only member of the Muslim Congress who stood firm.
In Sri Lanka the Cabinet has become a reward for getting into Parliament and having pleased those in power. Being a minister does not however necessarily confer power with regard to policy making, but this is not a problem for most ministers because they are not really concerned with policy, and few have the capacity to understand policy and planning. Rather, they see ministries as providing them with perks, as the excesses of the last few weeks have made clear, the massive sums the country now has to fork out for yet more vehicles for yet more ministers.
That, it should be noted, combines with unnecessary establishment costs, something Ranil Wickremesinghe is quite comfortable with, for it may be remembered that when he was last Prime Minister he actually had ministries that had budgets only for offices, no provision for funds with which to do any work. The message that gave out was that work was not necessarily expected of ministers, an expectation that many of them live up to admirably.
But that does not mean they do not exercise executive authority. They do this by dishing out jobs, and by creating mechanisms to enhance their own electoral prospects. So the Ministry of Vocational Training and Skills Development is full now of people from the Southern Province, marking the time in office of its longest serving minister – just as the South Eastern University was staffed by security personnel from Galle when Richard Pathirana was Minister of Education and Higher Education, while Ashraff at the same period had stuffed the Galle Port full of people from Ampara.
I suppose it was to minimize the damage, confining it only to establishment costs that Ranil set up ministries that did no work. But unfortunately obtuse creatures are also appointed to ministries which have necessarily to function. In the old days it did not matter much that those with no capacity were given office, which it must be granted occurs in other countries too that function under the Westminster system, where some senior members of Parliament, however foolish, cannot be left out of office for ever.
But in most such countries there are able civil servants to do the job, as illustrated graphically in 'Yes, Minister'.
In Sri Lanka however we have also politicized the civil service. The President's manifesto pledged to restore its independence, but it has singularly failed to do this, and still keeps the appointment of Ministry Secretaries the prerogative of the President. It also has all Secretaries give up office when the government changes, which makes a mockery of the concept of Permanent Secretary, destroys continuity, and increases their vulnerability. I tried to change this, and indeed moved a constitutional amendment to this effect, but I found that even the President, whose instincts I had thought sound, did not understand the problem.
He claimed that it was necessary to keep the provision because of an appalling appointment to a ministry which he mentioned, oblivious to the fact that it was precisely the current provisions that had made such an appointment possible. Ranil meanwhile claimed that it had always been possible to bring in outsiders and cited the case of Ananda Tissa de Alwis, ignoring the fact that such exceptions are always possible, but the norm should be internal appointments through the Public Service, with security of tenure. Exceptional cases can always be changed through a formal mechanism, instead of making all secretaries vulnerable as a matter of course.
The fact that no one claiming to be a proponent of good governance bothered about this made it clear to me that they were simply interested in their own agendas and predilections and unconcerned with structural change, provided their desires, positive and negative, were fulfilled. So it was not surprising to find characters such as Upul Jayasuriya and J. C. Weliamuna also immediately feeding from the trough, and with nothing much for the nation to show for the emoluments they received.
What lies behind this reluctance to change the system, even though its adverse consequences are clear to all? There is no doubt that much money is spent on perks, much money is wasted on the appointment, to secure jobs as well as support positions, of hangers on who contribute little to benefit the country or the ministry, and all these appointees hanker after unsolicited projects from which many of them derive personal benefits.
The argument is that the government has to keep parliamentarians happy else they will topple the government. In the present case, the odd couple, realizing that either component would not go down well in the country on its own, thought the solution was ensuring protracted union. This has meant keeping even larger numbers happy, though sadly in the case of the SLFP this means the less capable members of the younger lot, who contribute nothing whatsoever to governance.
True there will be unhappiness if some are ministers and others not. But the answer is to have a constitutional bar to excessive numbers so that those who decide on the Cabinet can explain clearly the need to be selective. At the same time, more authority could, and indeed should, be given to all members of Parliament, with regard to contributing to development in their own areas.
Such contributions should not be simply through financial subventions, but should be based on sustainable projects, with careful study of what would benefit constituents. Now however parliamentarians are not even expected to engage in analysis of what would help the people, and the support they have to do their work is quite ridiculous. Symptomatic of what is intended through salaries for staff was the provision to pay this through the MP if required, which allows for hiring of family members.
The manifesto the President Maithripala Sirisena presented is quite clear about what was intended. He said, "The Cabinet will be reduced to 25 and with ministries established on rational criteria. In order to promote efficiency and convenience of the public, subjects that require coordination will be combined." I do not think the President was hypocritical when he pledged this, but he simply has not bothered from that time to this to work towards fulfilling this promise.
He must surely realize that, in the short term too, but certainly in the long term, if he fulfils this pledge as well as the one about electoral reform (which he does seem to have thought about more), he would do much more to set the country on the right path, than engaging in the witchhunts which those who pressurize him want him to concentrate on. After two years working with Ranil and his crooked crew, he must realize that corruption is general and the best way of dealing with it is reducing opportunities.
This can be done by:
n Reducing the numbers of those who have opportunities for plunder, by implementing the manifesto promise. This will also make it possible for ministers to set clear work targets in their areas of responsibility, without the difficulties of coordination that we now have. And more able ministers can be chosen, who will try to concentrate on outcomes rather than incomes.
n Reduce the need for Members of Parliament to make lots of money, by implementing the manifesto promise about changing the electoral system. If electioneering is confined to electorates, and against a limited number of opponents, expenditure will necessarily be much less. That the President should have failed to work on this, despite his evident interest in the subject, suggests that he needs more effective staff to take forward his own agenda.
n Strengthen Parliament oversight systems by giving actual powers to Committee Chairs who should not be part of the executive.
But for this to be effective there should be senior and able people outside the executive on the government side too, since these committees need moral as well as theoretical authority. And the Freedom of Information Act should be properly implemented, without permitting underlings such as the Secretary to the Prime Minister to create the impression that the government is not serious about basic principles of good governance.
Recent newspaper reports suggest that the President is being driven into pursuing vendettas, which the country simply does not believe are justifiable objectively, given the mounting evidence of both corruption and waste on the part of the government. I am not for a moment suggesting that this lot is worse, but they are certainly more blatant about what they are making, and at the same time they have nothing to show for it in terms of investment, infrastructural development or stability. With the need for elections looming, the bubble will burst and it would be tragic if Maithripala Sirisena, elected with so much hope, has nothing to show for his manifesto except a not very effective 19th Amendment, the fortunes derived through the Bond scam along with the high interest rates the country has had to pay – and the family silver that has been sold off.
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