Cabinet Responsibility, Ministerial Irresponsibility Or Just Plain Chicanery

In the time tested form of the parliamentary system of governance there is the concept of  Cabinet Responsibility (Ministerial Responsibility) where ministers are said to be ‘collectively responsible’ for government policy. In Sri Lanka’s fast evolving constitutional form of government – particularly under President Mahinda Rajapaksa – the cabinet itself has become a tremendous joke with over 100 members of parliament being included in it but in reality none of them possessing any real administrative power.

The system of governance has been reduced to a political circus with a one ring master, Mahinda Rajapaksa, cracking the whip and which way he will crack it, no one really knows. Some of the ministerial antics are unique by 21st Century standards. Summary justice in the form of assault of officials who had not complied with requests made; tying an official to a tree for not being punctual at a committee meeting; the public declaration of a decision to break the legs of a journalist for ‘treasonable’ activities; a threatened suicide by fasting if the Secretary General of the UN does not comply with a demand made by a Sri Lankan minister are some of the best known instances.

In most cases whether fellow ministers extended their support to their colleagues is not known but the all powerful president has maintained a deafening silence leaving the public guessing whether these ministerial actions have the collective support of the massive cabinet. More important is what the government intends to do.

In recent times some contentious and contradictory statements have been made by ministers on issues of vital importance.

For example the Minister of State Plantations Mahinda Samarasinghe had made a statement prior to the Resolution against Sri Lanka being moved at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva asserting that India would be supporting Sri Lanka at Geneva.  The Samarasinghe statement had infuriated Lok Sabha MPs of Tamil Nadu who created ugly scenes in the Lok Sabha which is said to have made the Indian government vote against Sri Lanka.

This should be considered as ministerial irresponsibility at its highest but in the Rajapaksa circus it has passed without a murmur.

There were great expectations by the Rajapaksa regime on the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC). It was expected to take the heat off the regime by some Western powers for ignoring the alleged violation of human rights by the Sri Lankan armed forces. To a certain extent, the LLRC succeeded with its recommendations for investigations into specific areas. The American sponsored European Union backed Resolution called for implementation of the LLRC recommendations along with accountability for alleged violations of human rights.

But now some ministers such as the Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva and Prof. G. L. Peris are saying that the government is not bound to implement all recommendations of the LLRC and some are saying that the LLRC had gone beyond it mandate in making some recommendations. The final arbiter on all significant Sri Lankan matters remains silent while there is a roaring public debate on the issue. The fallout of this confusion and studied silence (of the President) on international pursuers of the anti-Sri Lankan Resolution is likely to be evident soon.

The Rajapaksa regime has been adept in warding off  existing crises by burying them under newly emerging crises, not resolving them but only compounding them. The most serious crisis it faced was the spontaneous outbreaks of public protests against the impact on the drastic fuel hikes that were imposed. It had no effective response to this crisis other than to offer subsidies to affected sections of the community. Whether these subsidies were ever given or not is not known, but time will tell.

However, the anti Sri Lankan Resolution on human rights moved in Geneva saved the day for the regime. Patriotic fervour was whipped up, mobs transported – bus loads to Colombo diverted public attention  – and the rising protests against the cost of living remain effectively buried to date.

To some observers of the Sri Lankan scene a strategy adopted by the government to avoid embarrassment and a run on its popularity appears to be the pronouncement of stupid declarations and condemnations made by its ministers which effectively detracts public attention from much more vital issues

The latest issue has been sparked off by a stupid claim by Minister Bandula Gunewardena that a family of three members can live on Rs.7500 a month, the amount being sufficient for basic needs such as food. The Minister a former tuition master in a private tutory claims he holds a degree in economics. He would have done better if he had a GCE O’Level pass in home science. In a TV debate his main argument was the price list of food caterers to university hostels and canteens. The minister should be aware that the public is not as naïve to believe that government food tenders are granted not so much on the price list of food items but on much complicated matters such as deals between the caterers, politicians and bureaucrats.

Even more elementary is that caterers buy food at wholesale prices which makes a world of a difference from the housewife buying her daily needs at retail prices.

The debate should not have been about the stupid claim of a person being able to live on Rs. 2500 a month or Rs. 83 per day. Indeed the minister’s figures are below the official poverty line of the Census and Statistics Department – Rs 111 per day. But what they eat only these poor people know. Minister Bandula Gunewardena obviously does not.

Some of the poor such as families living on the streets such as near the Colombo Town Hall perhaps live on much less – food packets being provided regularly by sympathisers.

What is intriguing is why Minister Gunewardena chose the bottom end of the scale of earning of workers and not the upper end of the scale. With his government boasting 8.3 percent economic growth for 2011 he should have boasted about the prosperity of workers in this ‘Asian Miracle’.

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