The need for a national campaign to reduce the size of the Cabinet

Perhaps the most exciting positive political development in the last few months was the Constitutional Amendment proposed by the Hon Vasantha Senanayake MP, to limit the Cabinet to 30 members. This was an important part of the suggestions he made to the Parliamentary Select Committee, after discussion with a group of young people. Given that it is not likely the PSC will come to anything positive soon, he thought he needed to act to promote at least one of the reforms this country so sorely needs.

It is to be hoped that all political interests in the country will rally round this initiative. In the past the minority parties have tended to stick to what they see as their own concerns only. But this neglect of measures that will affect the nation as a whole is counter-productive. In the first place it allows the extremists who will not recognize existing minority concerns to claim that the minorities are not interested in the country as a whole, which means they are still obsessed with the idea of a separate state. This of course is an absurd idea, given how many members of minority groups live in the rest of the country. But sometimes the behavior of in particular the TNA creates the impression that they are simply not interested in reforms that will benefit the country as a whole.

In the case of the Senanayake initiative, they should also realize that a much smaller cabinet would immensely benefit minorities too. As it is, the thinking elements in the Cabinet are dwarfed by those with majoritarian instincts who can shout louder than the rest. But in a Cabinet of at most 30, minorities would constitute at least 20% of the whole. They would also have as colleagues a number of efficient and capable individuals, whereas now Cabinet decisions are made by a massive host, which obviously cannot go into details in discussion.

Thus not only would the country be much better governed with a smaller Cabinet, but the quality of discussion in Cabinet, and the opportunity for different views to be heard, would be improved. Indeed the Liberal Party would prefer an even smaller Cabinet, and suggested this to the PSC, but certainly we would prefer the Senanayake Amendment to the present situation.

I suspect the President would also prefer this. Very often when I complain of some particular absurdity, he asks despairingly what can he do with the present Cabinet. And, while it could be argued that it is his own fault for expanding the Cabinet so indiscriminately, in his defence it could be said that pressures are irresistible when Members of Parliament can cross over if upset, and hope for rewards from the other side. If however the Constitution limits the size of the Cabinet, angry MPs cannot get what they want from any future government, and so they will have to rest content without office.

In response to the query as to whether Parliamentarians will feel they have nothing to do if they cannot become Ministers, Senanayake pointed out that they have much to do as Parliamentarians. At present hardly any fulfil their Parliamentary responsibilities, since legislation is left to the executive and oversight is exercised by committees chaired by Ministers. One reason for the current difference in performance between the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises, which produced a couple of reports before the PAC produced even one, is that the latter is headed by a Senior Minister with no Departmental responsibilities, while the PAC is headed by a Senior Minister who is also a Junior Minister. He has massive departmental responsibilities given that he is one of the few people who understands finance and is able to represent Sri Lanka competently in international fora. But the fact that he is not a Minister makes it clear how unimportant being a Minister actually is in the present dispensation.

But in addition to doing more work in Parliament, MPs could and should do more for their constituencies. This will certainly happen if we change to a sane electoral system as has been pledged but regrettably, after having implemented the proposed change for Local Government Bodies in an unthinking manner, and therefore having had to pledge amendments to the amended Act, government seems wary about moving quickly on the change where it is most needed, namely in elections to Parliament. Here again the Senanayake proposals to the PSC carry a detailed description of how to go to the mixed system promised by successive governments, but then ignored. Unfortunately these are not included in the Constitutional Amendment that has been proposed, but on balance Senanayake did the correct thing in going for just a single reform at this stage.

For the wonderful thing about this particular proposal is that no one can rationally oppose it. His ideas with regard to electoral reform, with regard to devolution, with regard to increasing accountability, all make sense, but there could be arguments against them which are not intrinsically selfish. But there can only be selfish reasons for opposition to this proposal.

It is obvious for instance that a jumbo cabinet results in massive waste, not only because of the perks that each Minister can command in terms of staff and vehices and fuel allowances, but also because of the establishment costs of each Ministry. I do not think this government has sunk as low as for instance the Wickremesinghe government which, after an initial attempt to restrict the cabinet, went haywire, and actually had a Ministry which had no budget for operational expenses. Wickremesinghe’s cynicism, in thus making it clear that he had only created a Ministry to give someone a job, may however be less pernicious in the long run than what happens now, when obviously useless Ministries get not only establishment costs but also at least some operational funding.

The Secretary to the Treasury has made clear, in noting that government works in effect through just about a dozen Ministries, that providing budgets for the rest is just a formality. Still, the sums expended are a great drain on the exchequer. Then, perhaps even more seriously, with so many Ministries in existence, coordinated activity is almost impossible. Indeed I found this a great trial when I was responsible for coordinating the Task Force to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. Even where there was willingness, there was a lack of clearcut responsibility, which meant that necessary measures were not implemented. The chaos that has arisen became obvious to me at various Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, with even a simple subject like insurance for agriculture coming under more than one Ministry. It is perhaps understandable, given the general dysfunctionality that pervades government, that the Ministry of Economic Building has tried to bring everything under its purview, but apart from its organizational problems – having no full time Secretary for instance – it has done so piecemeal, which confuses officials as well as the public.

A streamlined cabinet with clearcut responsibilities for each of its members must then be an idea that would appeal to everyone, except perhaps those now in Cabinet or hoping for office soon. Senanayake however has sensibly, if not entirely idealistically, granted that the change should be implemented only after the next election, so one hopes even Cabinet Ministers will support the Amendment.

In fact one Minister did do so, at the consultation on the subject arranged by the Council for Liberal Democracy on April 19th, the birthday of Chanaka Amaratunga who founded the CLD and initiated its seminal programme of discussions on Constitutional Reform in the eighties. The Hon Vasudeva Nanayakkara attended the meeting and agreed to work together with the young people who had initiated the proposals. It is to be hoped that other politicians, who are more concerned with results rather than their own personal agendas, will also support the effort.

If this happens, and if opposition politicians also indicate their support for the Amendment, without ignoring it, a sea change in Sri Lankan politics might occur. Now the issues that emerge are controversial ones, and politicians seek only to score points by opposing those with different perspectives. The discussion on constitutional change focuses only on the minority question but, important though that is, it is high time the minorities too recognized the general problems of governance that this country faces. Their recognition of this, and a willingness to work together with others to remedy the situation would do much to increasing confidence in their commitment to this country, rather than the clearly cynical moves they have engaged in in the past, designed more to express dislike of the elected government of the country than to work for the betterment of all its people. I can only hope then that this opportunity to develop a unified sense of purpose is not squandered.

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