COLLECTIVE responsibility, a 300-year-old doctrine, is a constitutional convention of the Westminster system of democracy that Malaysia inherited upon independence.
A cornerstone of cabinet government, collective responsibility holds that ministers should speak with one voice in public. This public unanimity still holds despite a minister’s vigorous opposition to a cabinet decision.
Any disagreement should have been aired in cabinet. Indeed, they must rightly be so. Diverse viewpoints can ensure that the right decision is made by the highest decision-making body in government.
However, once the cabinet collectively decides, ministers have no choice but to openly support it. And should a bill be tabled in Parliament, ministers are obliged to vote for it. Equally important, in parliamentary debates, ministers must defend their colleagues.
This principle of collective responsibility also prohibits public disparagement of the discharge of another minister’s responsibility. Breach of this principle can invite the wrath of the prime minister.
For example, in 2005, the then prime minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, suspended Datuk S. Sothinathan for three months from his duties as deputy natural resources and environment minister. He had criticised the government’s withdrawal of recognition of Ukrainian medical degrees.
The prime minister, of course, has the prerogative over how collective responsibility is enforced. He might decide to ignore peccadilloes, such as ministers disclosing to the public disagreements in cabinet over an issue. Or where a minister has the chutzpah to brief the media about his position on certain issues in contradistinction to the government’s stand.
Such was the case of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was the foreign secretary between 2016 and 2018 in Theresa May’s cabinet. But May overlooked this indiscipline.
However, serious breaches might invite a sanction given their potential to inflict serious political damage. For one, open ministerial discord can expose the government to opposition attacks. In the extreme circumstance, such attacks can topple the government.
It was open bickering among ministers on Brexit that caused May’s government to implode. For another, it can motivate leaks of controversial cabinet discussions to the detriment of cabinet cohesion and image.
Collective responsibility also extends to individual ministerial responsibility.
This requires a minister to put public interest above all else in the discharge of his functions. He is required to carry out his duties with probity, transparency and accountability. His decisions should be made impartially and on evidence.
Ministerial decisions must be based on merit and not motivated by his own ideology or political agenda. And at no time should a minister be beholden to partisan interest.
Notwithstanding, when a minister loses the confidence of his cabinet colleagues, or the prime minister’s, he has no choice but to resign.
Zaid Ibrahim did the honourable thing in resigning in 2008 after he felt that his cabinet colleagues were stonewalling his reform proposals. So did Dr Maszlee Malik, the former education minister, when he lost the confidence of the prime minister.
Should the minister not resign of his own accord, then the prime minister, who has the powers of hire and fire, might give him the sack.
Indeed, that was what May, the prime minister then, did to Gavin Williamson, her defence secretary, in May last year. She believed that Williamson had leaked information from a national security council meeting. Disputing that accusation, Williamson had refused to resign.
Here are two suggestions to overcome the risk of non-adherence to the doctrine of collective responsibility.
FIRST, the government should issue a code of conduct for its ministers. This code should spell out the requirement of public unanimity of cabinet decisions. And should there be a breach of this convention, the minister must resign from his post.
The code should also highlight the ethical principles that should govern the exercise of a minister’s functions. This will include the use of public assets for unofficial duties and the avoidance of a conflict of interest.
The lack of quorum in Parliament occasionally makes headlines. Two months ago, the 2020 Supply Bill for the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry nearly failed to pass on account of it. Hence, ministers’ parliamentary duties too, should be documented in the minister’s code.
Additionally, the relationship between a minister and civil servants should be delineated, highlighting especially the rights and expectations of both parties.
That way, cabinet and ministerial decisions are ensured their implementation, and civil servants are protected from ministerial pressures to execute directives that go against rules and ethics;
SECOND, to supplement a ministerial code, the cabinet office should also draft a cabinet manual.
Beyond emphasising collective decision-making, the manual should detail procedures relating, among others, to the submission of cabinet papers, cabinet deliberations and decision-making, wrongful disclosures of cabinet discussions and execution of cabinet decisions.
The relative role of the prime minister and ministers, especially when there are disagreements in the cabinet, should also be spelt out. Combined, these manuals will leave no room for doubt as to what is required of ministers on collective responsibility.
It will obviate hurt feelings, disappointments and embarrassments all round.
The writer is a professor at Putra Business School