As I have noted, the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that have been sent to the Parliamentary Select Committee are to form the basis of the discussions the Marga Institute is facilitating to promote consensus. The most innovative of the ideas put forward in the memorandum submitted to Parliament is the suggestion that we accept the logic of the Executive Presidential system, and therefore bring the Cabinet in line with the executive system in other countries which have Executive Presidents – the United States and Russia and France and the Philippines, to name but a few.

On a proper Executive Presidential system, unlike the hybrid perversion J R Jayewardene introduced, those put in charge of the different branches of the executive come from outside Parliament. If they are in the legislature, they have to resign their Parliamentary positions, as Hilary Clinton and John Kerry did. Even when the President has a Prime Minister whose tenure depends on the confidence of Parliament, when that Prime Minister has won election and established a majority, he gives up his seat to take up an executive position. And as we saw with Vladimir Putin in Russia, someone who had been elected to Parliament and thereby been chosen as Prime Minister, can easily, and with greater effectiveness, be replaced by a technocrat.

Characteristically, Dayan Jayatilleke opposed the suggestion on the grounds that it would lead to the President filling the executive with his own relations. This was yet another example of an otherwise very distinguished analyst allowing ad hominem arguments to influence his judgment. I should add that his position also fails to take into account the fact that any relations who aspire to executive office will have no difficulty in getting elected, as both our Parliament and many Provincial Councils exemplify. The problem then is that even the very able start making getting re-elected their priority, whereas if Ministers concentrated only on making a success of the areas for which they are responsible, we would have decisions and actions that focus on results rather than popularity.

In countries that follow the Westminster system there is provision for bringing in able people who have other skills rather than those of the professional politician. India has the Rajya Sabha through which technocrats such as Manmohan Singh and Kapil Sibal are brought into government. The United Kingdom and Singapore have safe seats which are given to those with established expertise who are then entrusted with ministerial responsibilities.

It is true that in Sri Lanka we have a National List which was supposed to fulfil this function, when even J R Jayewardene realized that the preferential system he introduced would reduce the chances of able people getting in to Parliament, or their desire to enter. But, apart from the horse trading that now goes on with regard to the National List, those who come in on that system are considered second rate by their colleagues. They think, and sometimes claim, that we are in Parliament only because of their sweat and blood (and money too, though this is not asserted in the denigration one is occasionally subjected to).

Given the efforts they have gone through to get elected, it is entirely understandable that they believe they are therefore entitled to portfolios. It is also understandable that the President feels inclined to indulge them, and not only because of the danger that they might become disaffected if he considers only thinking and administrative capacity in allocating responsibilities. That is why it is essential to entrench a provision in the Constitution that will ensure professionalism in Ministers.

It will be argued that this is impossible to achieve, since it is precisely those who now enjoy the perks of Ministerial office who will have to vote for Constitutional change. But there is no doubt that, if the President decides he wants to have an efficient Cabinet, the country would support him. And certainly the vast majority of those who understand that they owe their election largely to his popularity, will not oppose such change. Indeed I suspect many Parliamentarians would not resent the change too much, if it applied across the board, and they were all together on a level playing field with regard to election campaigns, at least as regards ministerial influence. And there is certainly no reason not to give extra support for their electoral aspirations by increasing the decentralized budget given to all Members of Parliament, since even quadrupling it would lead to less spending than now if the perks now given to nearly 100 Ministers were abolished. Ministers who are not politicians would not after all need massive security details, they would not need vast personal media units, and they would refrain from creating jobs that increase the strain on the exchequer.

Conversely, removing Parliamentarians from the executive would better help them to fulfill their main functions. They would bear a greater responsibility for legislation, on behalf of the people they represent, instead of as now seeing legislation as the preserve of the Cabinet, consisting as it does of the more senior legislators – who in turn rarely examine critically the suggestions of their colleagues.

Perhaps even more importantly, Parliamentarians, if not themselves exercising executive responsibilities, would better perform their oversight function. If the Cabinet were outside Parliament, systems of accountability to Parliament should be strengthened, with provision for regular attendance before Parliamentary Consultative and Oversight committees, and mandatory reporting mechanisms. We could also enhance the impact of Parliamentary Questions, where now Parliamentarians responsible for setting agendas see their primary responsibility as protecting their Ministerial colleagues who do not answer questions. The opposite should rather be true, and senior Parliamentarians should lead efforts to make Ministers more accountable as well as more efficient.

The suggestions that have been forwarded will not be adopted readily. But I hope the President will consider them, and realize the impact they would have on promoting a more effective and thus more popular administration.

Friday, October 11, 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/features/cabinet-not-quantitative-aspect

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