It appears as if the National Unity government is working its way from one controversy to another. The latest issue to grab headlines is the proposed Development (Special Provisions) Bill which, its critics argue will create a so-called ‘super minister’ who could usurp the powers of his colleagues.

Reports say that even some ministers from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are against the proposal. Ministers Chandima Weerakkody and Dilan Perera have said so publicly. Others have made similar observations in private. The proposed Bill is being sponsored mostly by the United National Party (UNP) faction of the government.
The Bill grants sweeping powers to the minister assigned to the portfolio. Some fear that it would lead to a situation where that so-called ‘super minister’ is able to by-pass other subject ministers, eroding their authority.

It is also no secret that most of the apprehensions in the SLFP camp stem from its recent experiences at the hands of Basil Rajapaksa who functioned as the all powerful Minister of Economic Development in the government of his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This though is precisely the issue. When Basil Rajapaksa was assigned the Ministry of Economic Development and rode rough shod over his Cabinet colleagues, no one dared to oppose him because he was the President’s sibling. However, the younger Rajapaksa did not have enabling legislation of the kind that is being contemplated now to support him.
What this proves is that ‘super ministers’ can be created regardless of whether the laws allow it or not, if they are allowed a free hand by their leaders who allow them to do as they please, no matter what.

Sri Lankan political history is replete with such examples. Felix Dias Bandaranaike was believed to have more or less run the government for Sirima Bandaranaike from 1970 to 1977 and no one dared to oppose him. When Ms. Bandaranaike lost in a landslide defeat in 1977 many blamed ‘FDB’ for the loss.

In the government of Ms. Bandaranaike’s daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, G. L. Peiris wore many hats and was a ‘super minister’ of sorts. He dealt with mostly on issues related to law, government policy and the ethnic issue and his word appeared to be final on these matters. Peiris is now a vociferous opponent of the proposed new legislation.
On the other hand though there were ministers who handled mega portfolios and had enabling legislation which granted them sweeping powers, the two that come readily to mind are Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali.

They were the rising stars of the J.R. Jayewardene government of 1977. Dissanayake was entrusted with the all-encompassing Mahaveli Ministry while Athulathmudali held the ministries of Trade and Shipping and thereafter the crucial portfolio of National Security at a time when the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was raging.

However, Jayewardene, the ‘Old Fox’ kept them in check, despite the vast authority they commanded. They were never perceived as ‘super’ ministers and their colleagues were free to criticise them.

The moral of the story then is that, legislation or not, ministers acquiring ‘super’ status is a reflection of the degree of control the leadership of the government has on its members. Ministers can be kept on a tight leash, as they were in the governments of Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa or they can be allowed to do as they please as it happened with Sirima Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

With the benefit of hindsight, the latter is often detrimental to the government because ministers, when they are invested with too much power, tend to run amok and eventually self-destruct. That is what the government should be worried about.

The arguments for and against ‘super ministers’ will continue in the New Year. Not endorsing the new laws because someone can misuse it is not a solution. It is as logical as saying motor vehicles should be banned because road accidents can kill people!