My comments on the ridiculous expansion of the Cabinet were carried in the Leader today, expressively edited by the sensible Camela Nathaniel. Ironically they were juxtaposed with those of Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, who was initially responsible for the unwarranted interference by the Prime Minister in my work which led to my resignation. But I don’t suppose he can understand his role in ensuring that the only voice able to challenge the hardline UNP leadership on its own terms was removed.

Will Jumbo Cabinet Be Another Nail In Government Coffin?

by Camelia Nathaniel
The government’s move to increase the number of cabinet ministers has come under fire from many quarters. On April six, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a new state minister and two deputy ministers, increasing the total number of ministers and deputy ministers to 92.  Badulla District United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MP Lakshman Seneviratne was appointed State Minister of Science, Technology and Research while UPFA Galle District MP Manusha Nanayakkara and UNP Kalutara District MP Palitha Thewarapperuma were appointed as deputy ministers.

At a press briefing held in Colombo last week, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said they were totally against the latest appointments. The former regime, Silva said, had maintained a cabinet exceeding 100 members and it was pathetic to see the present government too following the same bad policies. Silva said there was no scientific or logical basis for appointing these ministers. Citing the example of MP Thewarapperuma who represents the Kalutara district in the south, Silva said there was no logical reason for appointing him to develop the Wayamba Province. According to Silva the only reason these appointments were made was to strengthen the President’s power.

President Maithripala Sirisena is facing a split in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and according to Silva he is trying to assert his power in the party by doling out ministerial appointments.

Already the coalition national government of Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has faced criticism and there is some suspicion that the coalition may be in trouble. The UNP rode on the back of Maithripala and vice versa and now Maithripala may be worried, it is surmised, that the UNP is trying to take over. The UNP on the other hand is trying to strengthen its position in the coalition by holding onto the key positions in the government. Although the two main parties decided to come together in a bid to save the country from the tyrannical Rajapaksa regime, these same two parties are now engaged in a power struggle to establish supremacy over each other. Generally a single, more powerful party can shape the policies of the coalition disproportionately. Advocates of proportional representation suggest that a coalition government leads to more consensus-based politics, in that a government comprising differing parties (often based on different ideologies) would need to concur in regard to governmental policy. Another stated advantage is that a coalition government better reflects the popular opinion of the electorate within a country.

Prone to disharmony

However those who disapprove of coalition governments believe that such governments have a tendency to be fractious and prone to disharmony. This is because coalitions would necessarily include different parties with differing beliefs and who, therefore, may not always agree on the correct path for governmental policy.

Commenting on the current status of the national government of Sri Lanka and its waning promises, veteran politician and writer Professor Rajiva Wijesinha said it was sad that the number of ministers was increasing apace, because that destroyed the idea of governance, let alone good governance.

Pledges Ignored

“The President’s manifesto pledged that ‘the number, composition and nature of the Cabinet of Ministers would be determined on a scientific basis’ but as I noticed last year, I was about the only person interested in the manifesto,” Wijesinha said.

The short manifesto pledged a Cabinet of 25 which was ignored too, the number increasing dramatically when SLFP members who had not supported the President were brought in – none of the senior leadership, though, which has contributed to the continuing suspicions of and about the President.

Then, when the 19th amendment was brought, though the idea of statutory limits was introduced, there was a proviso that, in the event of a National Government, the number could be increased. That was destructive, because it implied that a National Government was essentially about jobs for the boys, he added.

According to Professor Wijesinha, when the 19th Amendment was put to the house, some of those now in the Joint Opposition objected to the special clause about possible expansion in the case of a National Government after the next election, but their remedy was to make that exception valid in perpetuity. “I proposed dropping the exception, but that amendment was not taken up, and there was no effort to define the term National Government.”

Not a National Government

What we have now is clearly not a National Government, Wijesinha says. There are officially only four parties represented in Parliament, but two of them are not in the Government. Even worse, a clear majority of the second largest party is not in Government either. It is pitiful if the less able of those in opposition are enticed by portfolios, to shore up the claim of a National Government, he says.

“What we have is essentially a UNP government, since all policy decisions are made by the UNP, propped up by some SLFP members, who are openly attacked by their Deputy Ministers from the UNP. Unfortunately our Supreme Court is not very active and will delay judgment about how the Cabinet has been enlarged, limitlessly,” Wijesinha told The Sunday Leader.

Professor Wijesinha said that it is even more tragic that nothing has been done about having a scientific cabinet, because we need clear responsibilities if ministers are to function effectively and with accountability. Most ministers, he said, have neither interest nor understanding of their portfolios, and are concerned largely with favouring their friends and enhancing their electoral appeal. He pointed out that since we also failed to fulfill the President’s commitment about electoral reform, and elections will continue to be fought in vast areas, which mean spending lots of money and providing lots of jobs, the executive branch will continue to be seen as primarily concerned with increasing popularity. This he said does nothing for development.

“Vasantha Senanayake and I suggested a couple of years back that, given the prevailing political culture, the only way to ensure an effective executive was by separating it from the legislature. J R Jayewardene had originally pledged this when introducing the concept of the Executive Presidency in his 1977 manifesto, but he then realised that keeping ministers in Parliament was the best way of controlling Parliament. So the farce will continue,” Professor Wijesinha further said.

Also commenting on the increasing size of the national government, leading intellectual Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri told The Sunday Leader that there is no limit to the number of ministerial posts the government can add, as much as there is no limit to the extent the good governance regime can lie.

“Hence they are limitlessly lying on this issue as well. They have no mandate to go for this sort of jumbo cabinet under any pretext. After all, this is not a national government and if it were, there cannot be an opposition. Now there is an opposition and apart from the main opposition there are two main formal opposition groups such as the TNA and the JVP and also there are over 50 members belonging to the UPFA functioning as the joint opposition. Therefore there is no justification whatsoever to call this government a national government.

That is totally wrong and a blatant lie,” Dewasiri said. Even the Rajapaksa regime, he said, claimed that they were also a national government on the basis that they too received MPs from the opposition UNP. Dr. Dewasiri explained that was how they got the majority. “Therefore, the bottom line is that there is no basis to call this a national government. Even if there was a national government, what is the requirement to give so many ministerial portfolios if you form a government based on national interest? This government has come under severe criticism for forming this sort of jumbo cabinet. This is one of the root causes of the deterioration of the political culture and governance in Sri Lanka. I for one do not buy any of the ruses of this government and that is something that needs to be clearly understood.”

Lesson from India

“However as far as the numbers within the government, I don’t know if there is a formal limit. But as far as the countries that we follow as an example, such as the US, UK and India, you don’t find these sorts of jumbo cabinets being formed. Of course the US has a system that is different from ours. However I think in the main democratic countries, you don’t see this type of irresponsible and unethical practices. I feel that this trend started during the tenure of Premadasa and from then on there was no change. It happened under Chandrika Kumaratunga and the same under the Rajapaksas and it is happening under this government too,” he said adding that it was ironic given the manner they criticised the Rajapaksa regime and the promises they made to the people.

A cabinet is a body of high-ranking state officials, typically consisting of the top leaders of the executive branch. The functions of a cabinet are varied; in some countries it is a reciprocal decision-making body with collective responsibility, while in others it may function either as a purely advisory body or an assisting institution to a decision making head of state or head of government. The size of cabinets varies, although most contain around ten to twenty ministers. Researchers have found an inverse correlation between a country’s level of development and cabinet size; on average, the more developed a country is, the smaller is its cabinet.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign was ‘minimum government and maximum governance.’ Prior to 2004 the Indian Prime Minister had the discretion to appoint any number in his council of ministers. But the Indian Constitution (Ninety-first Amendment) Act in 2003 made a drastic change in curbing such power of the Prime Minister. This Amendment added clause (1A) in this Article which made a specific provision that, the total number of ministers, including Prime Minister, in no case can exceed 15 per cent of the total number of Lok Sabha members.

Sri Lanka should take some lessons from its neighbour India.