Newbies out, oldies in! | Pakistan Today

Newbies out, oldies in!


  • With top picks coming from outside parliament

It was perhaps inevitable that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first Cabinet reshuffle should have been transformed into a debate on the merits of presidential and parliamentary systems, because it included such a high number of non-elected members, including the replacement for Finance Minister, Dr Hafeez Sheikh. Yet that same appointment highlighted another trend, that of bringing in former PPP ministers, in the shape of yet another PM’s Adviser, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, at Information.

At one level, the whole reshuffle was about removing just the Finance Minister. That is not an over-reaction, for the Finance Minister, along with the Foreign and Interior Ministers, is one of the three great offices of state. It can be argued that it is greater than the other two, because the Finance Minister makes one of the two annual statements of policy of the government, the Budget speech (the other being the presidential address). Then the Finance Minister is the only minister who looks at the work of all ministries, because all need money.

The office of Prime Minister evolved from that of First Lord of the Treasury. Originally, the monarch personally presided at Cabinet meetings of departmental heads, but with the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty in 1714, the King, George I, spoke little English. So one minister presided over Cabinet meetings, and briefed the King afterwards. The First Lord of the Treasury was a natural choice, because he was involved in the work of every aspect of government. The Chancellor of Exchequer was then responsible for money, but in recent years has been more concerned with revenue-raising. UK Government spending has a separate Cabinet minister, the Secretary of the Treasury. In Pakistan, this division is starting to take place, with a Finance Minister and a separate Minister of State for Revenue.

Cricketing analogies can be treacherous. While a captain’s right to choose cannot be denied, he must pick cricketers, not billiard players. In short, the PM must pick from among those in Parliament.

In Pakistan, the Finance Minister chairs the 11-member Economic Coordination Committee of the Cabinet. The economic team has thus not been revised wholesale, for most of the members have survived, except for the Petroleum Minister, and the Information Minister. The unelected content goes up, with the Finance and Information joining the Commerce Adviser.

Cricketing analogies can be treacherous. While a captain’s right to choose cannot be denied, he must pick cricketers, not billiard players. In short, the PM must pick from among those in Parliament. There are exceptions. Ministers have six months to find a seat. There is the ancient example of Farooq Leghari entering the Benazir Cabinet in 1989 while still a Punjab MPA, after failing to become Chief Minister or toppling Mian Nawaz Sharif. He then contested a by-election to the National Assembly, on the seat he had vacated himself. Then there is the more recent example of Miftah Ismail, who joined the Shahid Khaqan Abbasi Cabinet and assumed Ishaq Dar’s Finance portfolio even though the National Assembly was so close to dissolution that a by-election was impossible.

The Constitution does recognise the need of the Prime Minister to take people from outside Parliament by allowing the appointment of five Advisers. There is no mention of Special Assistants, who usually have the status of ministers of state. These Advisers have the right to a seat in both Houses of Parliament, and to take part in proceedings. But those who remember Shaukat Tareen’s tenure as PM’s Adviser will remember that he could not attend meetings of the National Finance Commission because he was not a minister.

This quite deliberately limits the PM’s choice of members of either House. The place for the ‘men of business’, the equivalent of technocrats, in the UK, was first ‘rotten boroughs’ and now ‘safe seats’. Here, it is the Senate. It appears there are no ‘safe seats’, though one was found for Shaukat Aziz when he had to become a member of the National Assembly to become PM. A presidential system not only gives the president a free choice, but if he picks a member of the legislature, the minister-designate must vacate his seat. Then there is the responsibility of the government to the legislature. In parliamentary systems, that is achieved by having ministers present; in presidential by having them appear before committees.

As our history shows, Cabinets of ‘All The Talents’ picked by martial law dictators have not really delivered. Even in the presidential system, the need is felt for a politician to be at the head of a department. There have been attempts by martial law rulers to have departmental secretaries form a governing committee, but the need has always been felt to bring in ministers.

Actually, there is a disconnect. Departmental secretaries are often administrators. Experts may well not be good administrators. The assumption that a ‘Cabinet of All The Talents’ will do well is thus fundamentally flawed.

It should also not be forgotten that the dismissed Finance Minister, Asad Umar, was about as much a technocrat as Dr Hafeez Sheikh. If Dr Sheikh has a PhD in economics, Asad Umar has a background as a business executive. Alone among his ministers, he had been named by Imran as his Finance Minister well in advance of PTI’s electoral success. He was not offered the job as Winston Churchill was offered the Chancellorship of the Exchequer in 1924, in the hope that he would refuse. He was supposed to be the pillar around which the government was constructed.

Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan is hardly a technocrat, her only link to the media being a stint as Information Minister. The woman she replaced as a minister, Sherry Rahman, who had gone to Washington as Ambassador, was a technocrat, having edited a magazine. She belongs to a learned profession, but then so did the man she replaced.

There is more of a case for expertise in the new Interior Minister, Brig (retd) Ijaz Shah, who is a former Intelligence Bureau DG. This one of the great offices has been held by a military man under the PPP (Maj Gen (retd) Naseerullah Babar), but under the PML-N by one of the possible contenders for the Prime Ministership, Ch Shujat Hussain and Ch Nisar Ali. Ijaz had been inducted in the Cabinet as Parliamentary Affairs Minister, a task which he immediately fluffed by the abrupt postponement of sessions of both Houses to make way for a tax amnesty scheme by ordinance. That amnesty did not come, and may have been the last straw for Asad Umar.

That portfolio has been filled by Azam Swati, one of those whose presence in the Cabinet seems unavoidable, witness his return despite his treatment of neighbours and the previous IGP Islamabad. And Imran should not forget that, as he was shown right after the World Cup, even captains can be dropped.