There’s talk in political circles that a cabinet reshuffle is imminent. This can mean many things. If it means that those proven to be incompetent are replaced by those likely to do a better job, it would be a good move. If it means that people with competence in particular fields will get subjects relevant to expertise, it’s good. If it’s about shifting the incompetent and corrupt to different spheres of authority it is not good. If it’s about changes calculated to keep intact a coalition that is breaking apart then from the point of view of the leaders it is a necess ary move, but nevertheless nothing more than a stop-gap solution.
There is obviously a competency issue as well as one of political expedience. In other words it’s a reflection of a human resource crisis and it is also an issue of political legitimacy. For politicians, it’s usually the latter that’s a concern. The former will not get resolved overnight, so let’s focus on the latter: legitimacy.
One has to feel for this government. It’s tough to quarantine the seeds of one’s own destruction when they are a core element of one’s political self. A coalition of political arch enemies is made for breaking, one could argue. More seriously, coming to power promising change that goes against the political interest of parties and politicians is not exactly an idea that ‘goes with the flow’. From Day One an against-the-stream battle was what was scripted. Rhetoric was easy, but the doing was going to be difficult. Now, more than two years later, even the rhetorician appears to have taken a break.
The issue of competence is not limited to the skills or lack thereof among the candidates for the various portfolios. It’s also about the separation of subjects. It was once quipped that if you were going to Galle on the Southern Expressway, there’s one minister and there’s another for those coming to Colombo. Not true of course, but the point that was made was about replication.
A ceiling on the number of cabinet portfolios has been mooted for years as a necessary move to improve performance. Political groups have called for it and some parties have pledged the same. This Government wrote it into law. It was announced in the 19th Amendment ‘Thirty’ was to be the limit. But then, quite anti-thematically, a loophole was scripted into the very same amendment by way of the clause on ‘national governments’. The number could be increased as long as a parliamentary majority approved. That kind of approval is of course guaranteed.
What’s most disturbing about the whole thing is that it has nothing to do with the business at hand, i.e. the issue of running the country. It’s about appeasing friends and keeping intact a coalition. It was quite unstatesmanlike on the part of the architects and pedestrian on the part of its parliamentary approvers. Put simply, if ministries are about spheres and if spheres don’t increase then a larger cabinet is not warranted.
The solution is to go one step further from limiting the number of portfolios to naming the subjects in a new amendment. This is something that those tasked to write a new constitution could look into. It would also have the added benefit of discouraging the ill-intentioned from running for office. Needless to say crossovers will thereafter be on principle and not on possible personal gain.