Sri Lanka has an unfortunate trend of having jumbo cabinets since the late 1980s. Though not seen ex facie as a matter affecting the accountability of the system of government, the public and intellectuals have generally been critical of the concept of a large Cabinet and prefers a small Cabinet.Rationale for Objection
The objections raised by academics, professionals and various other groups on such jumbo cabinets are mainly based on the following grounds:
Sri Lankan Parliament has 225 Members and the Executive arm of the government has a high percentage representing the Legislative branch. Thus, the conflict of interest between the two institutions is greater. Hence, separation of powers of the two limbs does not exist practically.
The President, being the Head of the Cabinet, will have enormous power to control Parliament through the Cabinet. The President, in addition to having the power to appoint the Cabinet, also has the authority to remove any of them at any time without assigning reasons. Thus the entire Executive arm of the State becomes subservient to the President.
The cost of maintaining a Minister is extremely high in Sri Lanka. A Minister has various privileges and perks including an inexplicable personal staff, vehicles and privileges unwarranted for a democratic country. Bigger the Cabinet, higher the expenditure.
With the appointment of Ministers, assignment of subjects is gazetted. Usually, when the number of Ministries is higher, the allocation of functions becomes illogical and irrational. Public often struggles to identify the Ministry in relation to the subject matter they are interested in dealing with.
There is no effective system either within Parliament or outside to hold the Ministers effectively accountable for their unlawful expenditure. The Ministerial accountability to Parliament is virtually limited to raising occasional questions pertaining to their Ministries. Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Public Enterprises do not summon nor question any Minister or Deputy Minister and the financial accountability of the Ministers is not checked by Parliament.
TISL has continuously displayed its displeasure in having mega cabinets. In addition to creating a public debate on the issue, TISL also requested the two leading candidates at
the last Presidential Election (Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse and Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe) to commit themselves to having a smaller cabinet under their Presidency leading to a new political culture. None of them made any public commitment on this issue.
The new political culture about which the candidates preach, evaporates with election to office.President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed his first cabinet with 26 Ministers, which one could argue on the face of it, has lesser number of members. As it transpired from the Gazette Extraordinary No. 1420/28 dated 23-11-2005, there are also 26 non cabinet Ministers and 29 Deputy Ministers. Some are holding Deputy Ministries while holding Non Cabinet Ministries.
Subsequently, another MP was sworn in as a Deputy Minister and there is no guarantee that the number of new Ministers would not be increased. The size continues to expand.
It is no secret that virtually every member of the President’s political party (except the Members of the JVP and one MP) is either a Minister, a Non Cabinet Minister or a Deputy Minister. It could well be argued that the cabinet portfolios are often utilized by Presidents in power to maneuver the political power of the President and to weaken the Opposition. Thus the same culture continues.
Non Cabinet Ministers
It could be argued that the main purpose of having Non Cabinet Ministers is to give a section of MPs some privileged status so that they will be with the government. Often such Ministries and subjects for such Ministries are created without any rational basis. For example, today there is a Non Cabinet Minister in charge of Botanical Gardens and Zoological Gardens, which could easily be a separate Department if not one Institution under a Department.
It is reported that the Non Cabinet Ministers also attend some Cabinet meetings. In any event, there is only a technical difference between a Cabinet Minister and a Non Cabinet Minister in relation to expenditure and perceptions. The Non Cabinet Ministers are also given a huge staff and perks almost equal to a Cabinet Minister. Maintaining a Non Cabinet Minister is as expensive as maintaining a Cabinet Minister.
There are various complications arising out of functions and conflicts that can arise when a Cabinet Minister, Non Cabinet Minister and a Deputy Minister is involved in the same subject. For example, if a Non Cabinet Minister is also a Deputy Minister, is he entitled to both salaries and other perks? If a strong division exists among Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Non Cabinet Ministers on policy matters, or on matters where benefits could be granted to the masses, it is possible that such matters would be resolved in favour of the Cabinet Minister, ensuring maximum political benefit for him and his constituency?
These issues need to be clarified but unfortunately no attempt has been made to do so in a transparent manner.
Finance Ministry held by President
The questionable practice of the President being in charge of the Finance Ministry continues to date. This dilutes the financial accountability of the government in many ways. The President usually does not attend Parliament and therefore direct questioning by the Members is practically impossible. Unlike the subject of national security, public finance is not a matter that could be kept confidential under any circumstances.
It is noteworthy that this unhealthy practice continues despite the existence of a clear Constitutional framework indicating that it is not desirable for the President to hold the position of Finance Minister. For example, under Article 151 of the Constitution, the Contingency Fund cannot be utilized by the Finance Minister without the consent of the President.
Furthermore, the Minister of Finance is virtually responsible for the policy and administrative directions of the Finance Ministry which entails enormous amount of specific activities. There are various statutes where the Finance Minister is designated as the appellate authority and where he cannot delegate his functions. The Finance Minister is thus required to be a full time person who handles nothing else. The President, being in charge of the overall affairs of Cabinet and the State is not practically capable of dedicating himself over the affairs of the Finance Ministry, even with the assistance of technocrats and / or an administrative staff.
It is reasonable to assume that today’s political environment demands that unless a member of the ruling party is given a portfolio to reap the benefits of an electoral victory, such member could cross to the opposition. There is no apparent political will or commitment to change this culture in Sri Lanka.
TISL observes the continuity of the same unhealthy practice of having irrational and unfairly large number of Ministries, at the expense of public funds.
There is certainly an urgent need to change this style of governance. Without a strong public demand and outcry, the political leadership does not realize the shameless and obvious weaknesses, for which they are mainly responsible.With a view to encouraging the public to take up this issue, TISL is considering a reporting system of Ministerial expenditure, in due course.
Written by J.C.Weliamuna