In getting ready material for the consultations I have been having with the young people concerned about constitutional reform, I finally counted up the number of Ministers we have. In fact the figure comes to less than 100, far fewer than the number of Ministers President Jayewardene had in his heyday, with far fewer Members of Parliament, on his side and taken as a whole.
His record included District Ministers too, so that 2/3 of Members of Parliament were Ministers in the eighties, and ¾ of the Government Parliamentary Group. Contrary to the hype of those critics of the current government who have forgotten completely the excesses of the past, things are better now.
But this still does not make them good. It is quite preposterous that Sri Lanka should have 65 Cabinet Ministers (along with 2 Project Ministers) plus 27 Deputy Ministers. In addition there are 4 Monitoring Ministers, as far as I know. This is fewer than I thought, but I realize now that the claim that Members of Parliament were asked to apply for these positions was not correct. I was under the impression, when I was told that I had failed to ask when applications were called, that National List MPs had not been included in the notice, but I find that others were left out too.
In fact I think the whole exercise was mainly to place Sajin Vas Goonewardene in the Ministry of External Affairs, which seemed essential at the time, given that the administration there had collapsed. The President has highlighted the fact that, after his appointment, letters were being answered, and for that he should be given credit. But the situation was unusual there, in that the Minister is particularly dysfunctional, and the Secretary, who had a sterling reputation for dedication and hard work, happened to be very sick. Certainly I have no doubt that Romesh Jayasinghe’s illness and premature death had a lot to do with the hijacking of our foreign policy, in the first years of the present government, by forces that thought our victory over terrorism a terrible mistake.
The only other two Monitoring MPs appointed at the time, as far as I know, were Duminda Silva and Uditha Lokubandara, to the Ministry of Defence, which is one of the few Ministries that does not need monitoring at all. That is why the whole exercise, the title as well as the hype about such monitoring, seems to me a huge joke, though it served a practical purpose a little later when Mohanlal Grero was appointed Monitoring MP of the Ministry of Education.
He certainly is a distinguished and knowledgeable professional in the field, and he tried to do much. I think it was because of him that the effort to introduce a new Education Act was revived, when it had become moribund. But recently it seems that he has acknowledged defeat, which I fear hardly anyone could have avoided, given the hidebound nature of the Ministry. The place saw three secretaries in as many years, and I do not know if even an Edward Wijemanne or a Tara de Mel would be able, in the present situation, to improve the situation.
Including Monitoring MPs then, we have close upon a hundred Members of Parliament with executive responsibilities. This is clearly unnecessary, as the plethora of titles they have make clear. Sugar and coconut have their own Ministers, as has Botanical Gardens. We have Ministers for productivity and administrative reforms, both areas in which there has been little improvement, and no signs of plans that are taken seriously by other Ministries. We have 10 Senior Ministers, one of whom is also a Junior Minister – and does more for the Executive inside Parliament than almost any other Minister.
Indeed, looking at the manner in which Ministries have been established, the concept of Monitoring MPs, the recent creation of two Project Ministers with identical titles, 10 Senior Ministers sharing a Secretariat, one gets the impression that someone in charge of policy has a superb sense of humour. I am sure therefore that soon Sarath Amunugama, perhaps the saddest victim of the delay in finalizing the election results in 2010, will soon be made a Minister too, so that he can be the first Minister in the world to score a simultaneous hat trick, in being three types of Minister as the same time.
When I say saddest, I do not mean sad for him, but rather for the country, given that he is the most able and articulate Minister we have. It is arguable that one or two others may be more able, and one or two others more articulate (though not in both languages), but for both qualities together, he is incomparable. He also has a sense of humour, which is one reason he comes out so well in the cut and thrust of Parliamentary debate, even when the brief he is handling is a difficult one.
Why then is he not a Minister? The short answer, based also on the fact that he is supposed to have volunteered to be a Junior Minister when, way back in 2010 the President wanted to restrict the Cabinet to 40, is that he does not need the perks that, for many Ministers, is the main point of holding executive office. These are massive, beginning with the opportunity to bestow jobs on vast numbers, some of them even officially in the sole gift of the Minister, such as the 17 positions I think in each media unit.
These are important given the ground Ministers have to cover for electoral purposes. That is why, though I believe the country suffers badly from this excess of Ministers, I do not blame the Ministers themselves, since naturally they see their main task as ensuring that they are re-elected. This is the fundamental problem with a constitution which fails to separate powers, made worse here by our appalling electoral system.