Revisiting ministerial responsibility

Parliament must recapture its role as the grand inquest of the nation.

NANCY Shukri, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, is being pilloried in the alternative media for her parliamentary reply to a query about why there was no prosecution for the infamous diatribe about burning Bahasa Malaysia Bibles.

Her tribulations draw our attention to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, which is a pillar of parliamentary democracies. The doctrine has twin pillars: individual responsibility and collective responsibility. Only the first will be discussed here.

This doctrine holds that during parliamentary deliberations, debates on motions and question time, a minister must answer questions, supply information and justify her department’s policies. She must accept vicarious responsibility for all policy and administrative errors in her department even if she herself was not involved in the administrative bungling or impropriety that is the subject of the parliamentary scrutiny.

A minister must resign if a vote of censure is passed against her. In many parliamentary democracies, a minister who is seriously criticised in Parliament vacates her post.

The convention of individual responsibility has many beneficial effects. It motivates ministers to monitor the activities within their ministries. It preserves the professionalism and anonymity of civil servants and shields them from partisan, political attack on the floor of the houses. Regrettably, it also has some undesirable effects.

Public servants shielded: The minister’s vicarious liability shields public servants from parliamentary exposure when departmental wrongdoing comes to light as in the Auditor-General’s Annual Reports of financial improprieties.

The recent controversy surrounding the non-prosecution in the “burn Bahasa Bibles” case indicates that a minister may have to take the rap for a public official who is not under her Ministry.

Under the federal and state constitutions, the office of the Attorney-General is the repository of vast powers and functions. By no stretch of imagination is the AG answerable to any Minister for his constitutional role. Under Article 145(3) and a long line of judicial precedents, he has the sole, independent discretion over prosecutorial decisions.

Collective responsibility: More often than not, collective responsibility hinders individual responsibility. Unless the Minister’s conduct is so reprehensible that it will dent severely the Government’s standing with the electorate, the government tends to stand behind a beleaguered colleague.

In 2004, Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu faced criticism about shoddy construction projects. He refused to resign and the cabinet protected him because the cabinet felt that the real guilty parties were contractors, engineers, architects, etc.

Recently, UPSR examination leaks, the tragic loss of two MAS passenger jets within a few months, the military incursions by foreigners into Sabah, periodic custodial deaths, and collapse of bridges did not result in any resignation.

There are rare exceptions, however. Dr Chua Soi Lek stepped down few years ago due to a personal scandal. Datuk Abdul Rahman Talib lost a defamation suit in 1966 and withdrew from the Cabinet.

In contrast, in Britain, there were 125 resignations in the 20th century, about 14 due to private scandal or private financial affairs, the most famous being the John Profumo call-girl case of 1963.

On Oct 4, 2014, Taiwan’s health minister Chiu Wen-ta resigned because of a food safety scare over use of “gutter oil”. Earlier, the economic affairs minister had resigned over fatal gas blasts. The education minister stepped down after he was implicated in an academic scandal.

In Britain in 1982, Richard Luce resigned to accept responsibility for the Argentine invasion of Falkland Islands. In 2002, South Korea’s Justice Minister resigned to accept responsibility over a custodial death and Britain’s Education Secretary resigned because of the Ministry’s failure to reach child literacy targets.


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