Ministries: do they still make sense?

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If the National Assembly is being reduced to the level of a mere District Council, the level of cabinet also seems to be in freefall. The question is: what do our ministers do exactly?

Certainly, it’s not that they are all that important when it comes to actually running their ministries. Under this government, the cabinet has been reshuffled multiple times and out of 23 cabinet posts, 12 have changed hands since 2015. In the case of some ministries – Gender and ICT – these have changed hands no less than three times. No significant difference in their performance. They just seem to muddle along no matter who is at the helm. There does not seem to be much work entailed because some people in government seem to be juggling multiple, disparate ministries without coming apart at the seams. Pravind Jugnauth has both the PMO and the Finance Ministry under his belt, Sintambou has Social Security and the Environment while Bodha is juggling Public Infrastructure and Foreign Affairs. This would also indicate that no real domain expertise is required to be a minister, even of a highly-skilled ministry. Until 2017, for example, the Health Ministry was run by Anil Gayan, a lawyer.  Whatever a minister does, clearly it does not take much time nor expertise. What it looks like is that civil servants handle policy (which hardly changes because civil servants don’t change – a reality that’s flattered with the term ‘policy continuity’) while ministers just hand out jobs to voters.

The issue goes way beyond this current government. Even the way in which functions are split up between ministries can be better explained by political exigencies, rather than functional utility. Why is building roads in a separate ministry from buying the land to build the roads on? The answer lies in 1995 when the Labour Party and the MMM could not agree on whether to give Rashid Beebeejaun a ministry or not. The MMM wanted to replace him with Ahmed Jeewah, while Labour wanted to entice Beebeejaun to jump ship. The solution? Hive off ‘Land Transport’ from the then-ministry concerned with ‘Land Use’ (then held by Alan Ganoo) and give it to Beebeejaun. Since then, one ministry decides to build a road while another decides how much to pay people for the land, with lots of fishy business in between. More recently, the current government took ‘Financial Services’ out of the Finance Ministry to allow Roshi Bhadain to be used as a bulldozer for all the controversial, dodgy business – DTAA, BAI, Sobrinho and the FSC – while allowing Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo to stay out of the muck. Why is Rodrigues at the minister mentor’s office, rather than Fisheries and Outer Islands? Because without beefing it up with Rodrigues as well, Anerood Jugnauth’s portfolio seemed a little sparse. It’s as simple as that.

This irrational way of conducting government has led some, such as former Finance Minister Rama Sithanen, to propose technocratic ministers who would be selected by merit. The Achilles heel of such a proposal, of course, is that we already have a technocracy, after a fashion.  Those nominated at parastatals and other public bodies are not elected there but rather are supposed to be chosen based on merit and competence. And yet, all we see are political hacks and campaign managers chosen. If ministers are chosen on a non-elected basis, these same hacks, flunkeys and financial backers will be minted as ministers instead.

The problem is not in the way these ministers are chosen but rather rests with those doing the choosing. As they say, you cannot pass a donkey through a meat grinder and expect venison to come out the other end.

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