One aspect of politics that draws criticism but little analysis is the phenomenon of large cabinets, with Members of Parliament imagining it their right to be appointed to Executive Office on the grounds of seniority alone.

This is nothing new, though the opposition affects to forget the massive numbers to whom President Jayewardene gave executive positions, which is when the trend really began. Not all his appointments were to the Cabinet or to Deputy positions, since he also had 25 District Ministerships to play around with, in addition to the Project Ministries he had instituted. The result was that at one stage he had over 100 Ministers of various types, in a Parliamentary group of around 140.

It is true that Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to restrict numbers, at a time when the topic had been raised by the JVP, which had made it a condition of the probation period they gave President Kumaratunga in 2001 that she restrict her Cabinet to 20. Unfortunately they failed to insist on a Cabinet amendment to this effect, and Mrs Kumaratunga in fact made it 22, though this did not help her to stay in power.

Mr Wickremesinghe adopted the expedient of appointing 40 Ministers, but putting only 20 of them in the Cabinet, and managed in the process to leave out the Minister of Human Resources Development. He claimed this was an oversight, though in fact it contributed to his favourites, Kabir Hashim and Suranimala Rajapaksa, as Project Ministers of Higher Education and Education respectively, settling themselves in their respective Ministries and exercising equal powers with Karunasena Kodituwakku who was in theory their superior. It was only three months after he first constituted the Cabinet that Ranil expanded it to include Kodituwakku and some others. Despite his claims to be cutting government expenditure, he evidently had no qualms about establishing Ministries which seemed to have no work, for some of his Ministers had no operational funds, receiving only establishment costs in the budget.

But I suppose that is one way of restricting expenditure. Though it is not only for the prestige that Members of Parliament want executive office, for some of them the perks that a Ministerial establishment brings with it – cars and a large personal staff, including over a dozen members now of a personal Media Unit – are enough to satisfy their aspirations.

But most need more. After all, the reason for needing executive office is the opportunities it brings for enhancing electoral prospects. Given the massive areas in which Members have to campaign now, and the fact that they have to campaign against candidates in their own party as well as the opposition, they need more resources as well as wider exposure than they would have required under the old constituency system.

That I think explains the Cabinet inflation that has taken place in the last 30 years. And perhaps the absurdity of allocating Senior Ministries only by age, without taking ability into account at all, springs from the belief that they will not be contesting elections again, and therefore have no need of the resources Ministerial office brings with it.

Connected with this need to indulge Members in terms of their future electoral prospects is the need also to keep them happy. Given the volatile nature of elected Members of Parliament, and the crossovers from which SLFP governments have suffered, it is understandable that the President thinks it necessary to keep them happy. Whether Ministerial office is sufficient for this is another question, but since there seem to be no negative consequences of increasing the Cabinet, this is one method of winning and maintaining favour.

But the trouble is that there are in fact massive negative consequences, though they may not be obvious. I do not refer to criticism of the size of the Cabinet, since that is generally based on party allegiances, and it is common knowledge that all parties in power in the last 30 years have done the same – which is why indeed the JVP introduced the condition in the first place.

Far more serious than criticism is the damage done to the administration by this proliferation of unnecessary institutions. At its simplest, there is little awareness of who is responsible for what and, though gazettes can indicate which institutions belong where, there seems to be little logic about the way allocations have been made. This contributes to confusion about who is responsible for policy. The result, it seems, is that policy is hardly ever discussed, and so the changes we need in so many areas are forgotten.

I have seen this at first hand recently, when the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs tried to set up Women and Children’s Units in Divisional Secretariats. There exists a model for this in the Social Care Centres that were set up following the tsunami, to coordinate protection work in the Divisions. But those were the responsibility of the Ministry of Social Services, and trying now to bring all relevant officials together will require instructions in a joint letter by both Ministry Secretaries. Ensuring that that goes out is not an easy task.

Similarly, in dealing with the vexed question of overcrowding in prisons, we need coordination between the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms. Changing sentencing (and remanding) policy is the responsibility of the former, ensuring decent conditions for those who have been sentenced (or remanded) is the work of the latter. In between perhaps is responsibility for ensuring that magistrates actually visit prisons, which is supposed to be part of their job.

What would make sense is a few large Ministries, with a Minister responsible for policy and for coordination, with one or more Junior Ministers with specific responsibilities. But since the perks of Junior Ministers are insufficient for the purposes for which it is assumed Ministries are created, we will continue with this increasingly inefficient practice of multiplying Ministries endlessly.

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