By Rajan Philips –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets full marks for creating a comparatively lean and applaudably mean cabinet. Leaving out the likes of Maithripala Sirisena and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is among the best cabinet making decisions in Sri Lanka’s 73-year history of cabinet government. The less said of them the better, and, hopefully, there will be no second thought on the matter. After ten years of sickeningly bloated cabinets, five under Mahinda Rajapaksa monarchy and five more under Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dyarchy, the new cabinet looks lean and trimmed. There is room for more trimming, and what was trimmed as ministers has been more than padded as state ministers. What is more lacking, however, is structure and talent. There is much room for structural improvement. Talent is all the dearer considering the twin challenges facing the country – a globally uncertain pandemic and an equally global crippling of the economy.
But what more can the President do? To paraphrase Pieter Keuneman’s timeless wit, you cannot perform a cabinet miracle with a pack of jokers and no aces. The time to address the limitations of the pack was at the time of nominations. That opportunity was lost when preference was given to old MPs continuing as candidates instead of bringing in new blood and talent. Another opportunity was lost in not using the long interval between dissolution (in March) and elections (in August) to create a well thought out cabinet design, identifying requisite portfolios and matching them with available talent and experience. The new cabinet does not indicate much functional thinking or purpose behind it.
We know from Sir Ivor Jennings that DS Senanayake wanted to limit the cabinet size to 20 in the constitution, but was advised against it by colonial officials. It would be restrictive for future governments given the reality of expanding government roles. That was the reasoning given against too small a cabinet. AJ Wilson used to say that Mr. Senanayake was a master manager of men (as Ministers) and that he ‘federalized’ the cabinet to mirror the plurality of Sri Lankan society – its religions, languages, castes, and locales. After the first cabinet of DS Senanayake, the most stable cabinet was under Dudley Senanayake in 1965. The cabinets in between were not necessarily unstable, but chaotic.
The United Front cabinet (1970-1975) was the most programmatic cabinet in that it bore a direct correspondence to the UF Manifesto on which it won the election. And the cabinet had both talent and experience due to the presence of the Left Parties. NM, Leslie Goonewardene, Bernard Soysa (NM’s alter ego at Finance) and Peiter Keuneman knew how the government worked inside out; Colvin was known to master any file in a matter of minutes. An unintended shortcoming of that cabinet, however, was that the distribution of portfolios went along Party lines at the expense of cabinet ‘federalization.’
President Jayewardene had started identifying Ministers for his cabinet even before the 1977 elections and before some of them became MPs. A few of them were from outside the UNP. And his cabinet was ‘federalized’, talented, and experienced, including first time Ministers who had earlier been Senior Civil Servants or Senior Professionals. All of them were elected in a first-past-the-post election under the parliamentary system that was held for the time in 1977. That was also the last time Sri Lanka had a cabinet government, that Jennings wrote a textbook on, and which had sunk strong roots in Sri Lanka. Cabinet government thereafter was left to wither and die in Sri Lanka, under the presidential system that President Jayewardene left behind.
The new Gotabaya cabinet is by no means a restoration of the old cabinet government. No one expects that. But is it sufficiently structured and enabled to deliver on all the lavish promises that the SLPP has been making? And all the expectations that people have been made to project on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? On all the matters that need to be done in the current crisis situation. How will the new cabinet and its ministers relate to the various Tasks Forces that were established in the pretext of the pandemic, when parliament was dissolved? These are the questions that are arising in the early days of the new government. Answers will come eventually in the actions of the government and their results, and not out of speculations.
Justice and Constitution
In the allocation of ministerial subjects, the President has assigned himself Defense, the bogey of the 19th Amendment notwithstanding. A glaring omission is the constitution. This is odd. The SLPP vigorously campaigned for a two-thirds majority, to overhaul the constitution and go beyond even the limits of JR. In the new cabinet, the constitutional file is not assigned to any Minister. A logical location for it would be the portfolio of Justice. We do not know if the subject is assigned to the Minister of Justice or anyone else in the fine print of the gazette. But if it is assigned to the new Minister of Justice, Ali Sabry, that would raise the hackles of Sinhala Buddhist organizations who are already protesting the appointment of a Muslim to the Justice portfolio.
The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) is also concerned about Mr. Sabry’s appointment, but not for ethno-religious reasons; it is over ethical concerns. Ali Sabry was the defence lawyer for apparently 14 SLPP politicians who were unsuccessfully arraigned on charges of corruption under the last government. Another oddity, at least optically, is appointing a supportive Muslim lawyer to Justice while trying to prosecute a politically unfavourable Muslim lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, allegedly based on his professional work as a lawyer. Stepping over professional courtesy, a senior government lawyer even compared Mr. Hizbullah’s professional work to that of the LTTE’s Anton Balasingham. That was not a legal argument but political grandstanding. Not that Mr. Sabry is going to have anything to do with Mr. Hizbullah’s case, given the depoliticised independence of the Attorney General’s Department that is only too well known. But it is difficult to miss the awkward appearances of conflicts of interest whenever Rajapaksas are in power.
To get back to the Constitution, if there is no Minister assigned to the subject, is it going to be outsourced to a task force? One headed by the non-playing coach of all departments of the game, Basil Rajapaksa. May be the President and the Prime Minister do not find anyone in the current parliament who could be entrusted with this task. G.L. Peiris looks too burnt out for the constitutional task now, not quite the new spark that he was when he forayed into politics from the academia in 1994. So, he is now assigned education.
Ministers and State Ministers
In the old days, each Minister had a Deputy Minister, or Parliamentary Secretary, and occasionally more than one if the Ministry had multiple subjects. State Ministries were created after 1978 to address specific subjects or undertake critical projects over a limited period of time. Now they seem to have morphed into another layer of sub-ministerial positions as pseudo-ministerial rewards to MPs for their political loyalty, and not for any special project assignment. In the new cabinet, ministerial portfolios are limited to 28 (with the Prime Minister looking after three of them), while the number of state ministers is kept at 40, along with another 23 MPs appointed as District Co-ordinating Committee Chairmen (no one seems to have been assigned to Batticaloa).
There is no intelligible correspondence between subjects looked after by cabinet Ministers and those assigned to State Ministers. The oldest Rajapaksa brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, is both the Minister for Irrigation and State Minister for Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management. This is another pickle portfolio like Ministry of Highways and Higher Education that Ranil Wickremesinghe cobbled together in the last government. There is no Deputy Minister or State Minister for Justice, although there is State Minister for Prisons Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation.
There are also no Deputy Ministers or State Ministers specifically for the important social infrastructure ministries like Education and Health. Pavithradevi Wanniarachchi continues as Minister despite the spat she ran into with Public Health Inspectors during the election. There is no indication of the parliamentary support she will have in the core areas of the Health sector. There is a State Minister for the Promotion of Indigenous Medicine, Development of Rural Ayurvedic Hospitals and Community Health, but there is no special mention of anything regarding the current pandemic situation either as specific responsibility, or as an individual assignment.
Amidst the confusing and overlapping allocation of subjects to State Ministers, the state ministry system itself has been used to serve a special presidential purpose in the new cabinet: that of accommodating Viyathmaga MPs, all but one of whom are newly elected, as Ministers of State (three elected MPs and two National List MPs) and as Chairman of District Committees (three elected MPs). Their appointment as full cabinet ministers may have been vetoed by the Prime Minister to keep the cabinet positions open only to the older MPs not only from the SLPP (19), but also from the SLFP (two), and one-off ministries to the one-MP constituent parties (six) of the old UPFA. Vasudeva Nanayakkara is assigned Water Supply as an inexplicably stand alone Ministry. The old LSSP and the CP get nothing, at least so far.
Of the Viyathmaga MPs, even Sarath Weerasekera and Nalaka Godahewa who topped vote tallies in the Colombo District and Gampaha District, respectively, have had to settle for positions as State Ministers. So has Nivard Cabraal, who enters parliament for the first time but on the National List. Sarath Weerasekera, a former Rear Admiral, and the only MP to vote against the 19th Amendment in 2015, is the new State Minister for Provincial Councils and Local Government Affairs. This is a mystifying appointment. Is he being to set up to preside over the resuscitation of the Provincial Councils, or their liquidation? Time will tell.
Old faces and new challenges
There is nothing mystifying about the appointments in the key sectors of the economy and employment – finance, agriculture, industry, the export sector, and infrastructure. The old faces have returned generally to the same old, or occasionally new, positions. The structure and the composition of the ministries in these areas do not convey any sense of urgency in trying to come to grips with the current economic crisis. There is no clear lead minister in charge of such an effort. The Prime Minister takes charge of Finance, but not just Finance, as finance portfolios are universally assigned. He is also padded with Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, on the one hand, and Urban Development and Housing, on the other, which could easily have been consolidated in other ministries.
Still better, Finance should have been assigned solely to a single Minister with economic gravitas – like JR Jayewardene (1947-52), UB Wanninayake (1965-70), NM Perera (1970-75), or Ronnie de Mel (1977-88). Not that they were infallible or their records are unblemished, but they conveyed the seriousness with which governments here and everywhere approach finance and economic management of the country. This is more so in the current context of a global economic crisis. It may be that there is no one else in the SLPP, other than the Prime Minister, to tackle this task. In which case, the SLPP should have invited some new talent to the Party and enabled their election to parliament.
There are nine individual ministries (Agriculture, Plantations, Land Irrigation, Industry, Fisheries, Trade, Tourism, and Ports & Shipping) that are pertinent to the economy, employment, and export earnings. Many more are scattered across state ministries. They could have been easily consolidated into fewer portfolios with tighter mandates. The ministerial appointments are hardly inspirational. It is mystifying why anyone of the Viyathmaga MPs could not have been considered for some of these positions. It is the same story in the areas of infrastructure, the environment and energy. I could not find where airlines and aviation are nestled in; they might be already airborne in Ravana’s helicopter.
On the bright side, there might be more method and purpose in the making of the new cabinet that sideliners like us cannot quite see through. There is also the opportunity for creating cabinet sub-committees and parliamentary committees and tasking them (not as task forces) with specific responsibilities. There is no minimizing, however, the gravity of the challenges facing the government – preparing a credible budget, meeting debt payments, protecting jobs and redressing those whose jobs are not protected, ensuring food production, and preventing a collapse of the export sector. All of this and more while struggling to keep the new coronavirus at bay. It’s a tall order. One that dwarfs the two-thirds majority.