After months of struggling and straining to implement a Cabinet reshuffle, the President eventually delivered on his promise. Whether the answer lies in changing pillows for a continuing headache, i.e. the economy, however, is left to be seen. For some time now, it had been known that the President’s main intention was to change his [...]


Whither merit in public service reshuffle


After months of struggling and straining to implement a Cabinet reshuffle, the President eventually delivered on his promise. Whether the answer lies in changing pillows for a continuing headache, i.e. the economy, however, is left to be seen.

For some time now, it had been known that the President’s main intention was to change his Finance Minister. However he required the concurrence of the ‘other party’ in his National Government, the UNP, to do this. There seemed to have been some initial resistance to the move from the Minister’s party, but it now seems that certain influential elements within the Prime Minister’s own ‘inner circle’ did him in, and worked on the swap – one FM for another.

While there’s no gainsaying that it is a comedown for the former Finance Minister to be removed, his replacement was quick to say the shoes he inherited are too big for him. He has said this before — when he took over as Foreign Minister in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the peerless Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005. He grew into those big shoes reasonably well, though he seems to have lost them in the past two years holding the same portfolio. He was probably getting stale on the job and with foreign policy being dictated from outside his Ministry, he took a laid back approach to the affairs under his watch.

As for his dual role as Media Minister, which came as a surprise, one would only hope his second innings in that portfolio would be more pleasant for himself, the Media and the Government he serves than the disastrous period during his previous avatar as Media Minister in the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government.

One might feel a tad sorry for the dismissed Finance Minister, but he must be held partly responsible for his own downfall. No doubt, he had to pay for the collective sins of others, not least having inherited a Treasury heavily debt-ridden with loans taken by the previous Rajapaksa Government. But then, this Government wanted to run the country and the Finance Minister, the job of managing the empty Treasury; these jobs were not thrust down their throats.

To begin with, the Finance Minister received an emasculated Ministry sans the Central Bank. In order that his party won the Parliamentary elections of August 2015 on a polar headwind, he piloted a Rs. 10,000 pay hike for Government servants, reduced petrol prices and took the credit for some populist measures that the country could ill afford. A botched attempt at collecting revenue through VAT and a familiar trek to Washington to pay homage to the IMF and World Bank for bail-out loans and to Beijing and New Delhi in search of investments were the hallmarks of his stint at the Ministry of Finance. Ironically, the first act of the new Foreign Minister was a familiar one to him – asking for foreign aid, this time for flood relief.

Then he was identified with those who were involved in the massively roguish, hugely unpopular Central Bank Treasury Bond scam of 2015 and 2016. That was not good for him as much as it was not good for the country. Within his own party, he tried to make out that he was their main fund-raiser, but he won no brownie-points with the party leadership when in a second castration of his powers, the state banks and several other institutions were taken out of his control, and he refused to get his appointees to stand down to make way for new nominees.

Consequent to this mini Cabinet reshuffle on Monday, one is to expect some heads to roll and fresh faces to be inducted to the support staff of the Cabinet of Ministers – the Public Service; the men and women who execute the political decisions of the Government.

One of the expectations of the new Government in 2015 was that not only would there be a group of competent Ministers at the helm of the country’s affairs, but also that the Public Service would be better oiled (not in the bribery and corruption sense), independent and efficient.

In fact, the Government announced that there will be a high-powered committee headed by no less than the President and the Prime Minister to select political-appointees to high office on what they themselves called “a scientific basis”. That has become one of the biggest jokes of recent times. Take the classic case of the Ports Minister who removed a Ph.D qualified financial expert who had returned from Britain to serve his country, and replaced him with the Minister’s brother who had less educational qualifications than is required from a port security guard.

The SriLankan Airlines board is a miniature example of the dysfunctional Government. Its members have been appointed by the Prime Minister and former President Kumaratunga and there has been in-fighting from Day One. Differences of opinion is one thing, disagreeing on everything is another. The line minister is often kept out of the loop. It is a public secret, and nothing is seen to be done to remedy the hopeless situation of the continuously loss-making national carrier.

Relatives and party hangers-on were appointed, no different to Governments before, even by the President as Secretaries to Ministries and as Ambassadors and Corporation heads and to their directorates. This week, the Parliamentary High Posts Committee published a list of persons so appointed and called for public petitions, if any. The Committee is supposed to check on their suitability for the posts, some of which these people have been holding already for years.

Not since, the Select Committee headed by then Prime Minister R. Premadasa found the most suitable Upali Wijewardene as unsuitable to hold the post of head of the then GCEC (Greater Colombo Economic Commission now the BOI – Board of Investment) and President J.R. Jayewardene ignored the politically motivated findings, has the High Post Committee found anyone unsuitable, unsuitable. It has become a mere rubber-stamp limited to checking if the appointees have paid their income tax.

When the Government therefore proposes Parliamentary All Party Oversight Committees to go into the administration of the Government, it must be serious about its own proposal. It is understandable that ‘jobs for the boys’ — i.e. jobs for those who supported the ruling party into office – are a political necessity. But so too is the proper administration of the country. There have to be hand-picked apolitical persons for state jobs. The good and bad in appointments is best illustrated in the appointment of the former Governor of the Central Bank (bad) and the present appointee (good).

This week, in the backdrop of the Finance Minister asking for statutory bodies un-related to his new Ministry (and further castrating his old ministry), the UPFA General Secretary and Minister says “institutions will be allocated on a scientific basis”. Haven’t we heard this bovine excreta before?

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