by Srinath Fernando
It would be opportune to reflect on the nature and duties of a Cabinet Government in the wake of recent controversial remarks made by a Cabinet Minister followed by a fast unto death which eventually became the farce of the century. When a minister is appointed his responsibilities are clearly demarcated through the allocation of functions by gazette notification.
How functions of the Ministers are allocated is a prerogative of the Executive President, by virtue of powers vested in him. Once a Minister is appointed he can no longer identify himself as being a representative of a particular constituency and he would have to relinquish all the positions he held in his private capacity. He is considered to be a minister for all time even when he is fast asleep at home. The reason being that a Minister could be awakened by his staff if the matter is of national importance and it should be brought to the urgent consideration by the Minister.
Assume for an instance an aircraft is hijacked at midnight and terrorists are demanding landing permission from the airport and the Airport authorities would require Minister responsible for civil aviation to be notified even at midnight. Since a Minister is for all time, he is duty bound to make a decision and also to defend his decision in respect of any particular action. As regards collective decisions made at the sessions of Cabinet of Ministers/ Council of Ministers he will also be required to defend the policy of a fellow cabinet member as well.
This is called collective responsibility and no minister could abdicate his ministerial responsibility of defending the government policy. If he were to do so it would be to the detriment of his own government and would unnecessarily earn the wrath of his cabinet colleagues and the Executive ‘All Mighty’. The public opinion too would go against the government and then he would be an inevitable prey for the opposition looking for issues to exploit, as is the case with all functioning democracies world wide.
All ministers are required to publicly affirm the policies of the government regardless of any private misgiving about a particular policy. No minister could say that though he approved a government policy but it is not his private view.
Neither can the Government say that a statement uttered by a minister was not the view of the government and the remark is attributed as a personal view of the Minister concerned. What would be the position of a Coalition Government where the government is formed with the help of many political parties? What would be position of a government where candidates are fielded directly under one political party (UPFA) but the candidates have their political affiliation to other political parties with different policies (NFF).
Should a minister recuse himself from such political affiliation?. When a Minister publicly calls for people to surround a particular diplomatic mission and take hostage of the mission until the country / organization concerned backs down or deviates from that particular action. How could this be a personal view of a Minister?. If he were the Minister of Foreign Affairs, could he make such a statement?. Could the government says that it is the personal view of the Minister of Foreign Affairs under whose purview the diplomatic missions come under?
The so called animated ‘fast unto death by the Cabinet Minister is not in fact a cabinet matter but a serious breach of diplomatic conventions and smacks of a hate campaign to influence the people to perpetrate a crime. The whole world is watching the actions of the government. This is unprecedented in the contemporary politics since 1977 Iranian revolution. What government should have done was to have averted such an incident taking place in the first place but instead it gave a veiled sanction for such a protest. The government culpability cannot be brushed aside.
The credibility of the government seems to have hit the rock bottom. Incidents in front of the UN office seem to have had the seal of consent from the Rajapakse administration. The Government castigates foreign governments for various reasons whereas the real conflicts seem to spring from within? The recent pronouncement by the Cabinet Minister was somewhat reminiscent of the Iranian Revolutionaries making instigative and hostile remarks for protesting students to take U.S. Embassy and staff hostage.
The Iranian Revolutionists never made such an explicit remark as the one made by the Sri Lankan Minister. The International Court of Justice at Hague gave a judgment accusing the Government of Iran of violating Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic immunity. There have been other instances as well. Even the ‘second in command’ of the last government also made a remark which was against a senior diplomat of an international organization and identified him as being a ‘terrorist’. These utterances are meant to hurt the government from within.
Should not it be time a Code of Conduct is put in place to muzzle the lose cannons?. The net effect of all these now falls on the Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. G.L.Peiris when he meets his foreign counterparts. How would he be able to convince his counterparts that all is well with the government. After all diplomacy is about winning the enemies and keeping the friendships in tact. Are we not driving our friends to the wrong side? These actions will only gain credibility of the separatist lobby who are mounting a vigorous campaigning against the interests of Sri Lanka. This is a time Sri Lanka should be in control of the fast developing and deteriorating situation abroad.
A minister cannot possibly give vent to his emotional outbursts or make incendiary remarks. He should know well that he has far too serious business in hand that should be referred to the Cabinet for approval than taking unilateral action which would only meant to create chaos within the government. Even though a minister represents a certain political party, the view of such a political party should come from within the confines of the Political party itself sans the Minister, thus detaching the government from such party politics.
Ex Indian Minster Shashi Tharoor was forced to resign from his ministerial portfolio over Indian Premier League cricket tournament, merely because of allegations level against him in the media. He resigned graceful making a public statement in the parliament. Rodney Brazier, Professor of Constitutional Law has identified three main areas of ministerial responsibility in his book titled Ministers of the Crown,(Oxford University Press 1997), viz a.) his private conduct b.) general conduct of his department c.) acts done (or left undone ) by officials in his department. The British Parliament has produced a Research paper (04/31 April 2004) in which four principles have been identified for individual ministerial responsibilities. (as given below)
Inform and explain:
The basic requirement of accountability is that ministers explain their actions and policies to Parliament, and inform Parliament of events or developments within their sphere of responsibility. Thus ministers make statements (on their own initiative, through urgent questions, or through written ministerial statements for example) on all sorts of issues from transport accidents to proposed new policy initiatives, and make available detailed explanations through Parliamentary answers, consultation papers, white and green papers and so on
Ministers who admit an error, of whatever kind, either by them personally or on behalf of their officials, will usually be expected to apologize to Parliament, as part of a full explanation, whether or not a resignation or dismissal is involved. It is often said that the House of Commons is generous and forgiving to those Members and ministers who admit their mistakes and atone for them, especially where the mistakes are not regarded as sufficiently serious for resignation. In appropriate cases an Opposition may only seek an apology rather than a resignation, or the House may accept an apology even when resignation has been demanded originally.
A minister who is responsible for an unsatisfactory state of affairs (whether identified by them, by Parliament or by some form of inquiry) will be expected to take appropriate remedial steps to correct it and to ensure that it should not happen again. This applies whether or not any resignations or dismissals are involved, although in some cases the remedial action may be promised and carried out by a successor in cases where the responsible minister has left office.
This is the ultimate accountability action and sanction. It is also the most difficult to categorize and explain. While the other actions noted above are essentially, in constitutional terms, administrative, executive actions, of ministers carrying out their ministerial duties to account in a substantive way to Parliament, resignation cases — including those where resignation was successfully resisted, at least for some time, and cases of ‘sideways’ or other reshuffle — can develop into essentially political battles, often, but not always, of a partisan nature.
It would perhaps be time a Code of Conduct for Ministers was promulgated in order to arrest the fast deteriorating government credibility in eyes of international observers. The Code should include ethics, official secrecy, guidance on avoiding conflicts of interests, transparency in the affairs of the respective ministry and stringent financial control over waste and corruption. As far as foreign relations are concerned the Government needs to adopt a non confrontational stance in conducting its foreign policy and let the foreign affairs be left for the official diplomats who are trained in the art of diplomacy.