When Timor-Leste's new Cabinet was announced, there was a flurry of critical comment within Timor-Leste, about both the size and composition of the ministry. Some critics were unhappy that an expanded ministry would cost more and potentially lead to more corruption while others railed against Timor-Leste becoming an ‘oligarchy’ rather than a democracy.
The positive aspect of this commentary is that is shows that Timor-Leste is a plural political society expressing a range of political views. It is also important to note that while some of the commentary reflected partisan political positions, much of it also reflected a genuine concern over the size and capacity of the government.
The new ministry, with 17 ministers, is not especially large by any standard and is much smaller than many of other countries. The criticism therefore reflects on the inclusion of vice-ministers and secretaries of state, who exercise quasi-ministerial functions.
It is not unusual for governments to appoint vice-ministers or their equivalent – parliamentary secretaries in parliamentary systems, under-secretaries in republican systems - to handle particular segments of the ministerial portfolio. What would be unusual is if Timor-Leste did not delegate responsibility for particular functions within a ministry.
Similarly, secretaries of state are nominally included in the ministerial profile but are not ministers as such. They do, however, have direct responsibility for a further range of devolved areas of government activity.
The question is, then, what is enough and what is too much. Proponents of the small state model tend to argue against fewer ministries and supporting officials. The problem with this in Timor-Leste’s context is that the criticism of the size of the ministry is coming from what might be called the ‘left’, which traditionally supports larger government.
Another criticism of the Cabinet is that it reflects political interest, including members of the governing coalition, rather than administrative capacity. Governments necessarily reflect a particular political orientation, so it would be surprising if this government included individuals, for instance, who do not support the government’s program. That is the role of the Opposition.
The selection of the Cabinet in a coalition environment will always have to balance party representation with administrative capacity. It is fairly well known that some of the ministerial claims put by parties were rejected on these grounds.
There is also a question about the extent to which ministers, vice-ministers and secretaries of state will be beholden to their own parties and the extent of opportunity for corruption. As a society still transitioning from traditional models, in Timor-Leste there is still some expectation of reward for support. But, in a country increasingly ruled by law and with an active Anti-Corruption Commission, the awarding of government contracts cannot be, or be seen to be, done on the basis of loyalty over competitive capacity.
Some critics also worry about the cost of the ministry, given that it has grown in its inclusive form and that associated costs have similarly risen. The question then, is, about what is an appropriate level of salary and support for ministers and senior staff.
One view is that, as a public service, politicians should be honoured to be elected and not expect much reward. But politicians cannot work for nothing. Moreover, if there is not some financial attraction to politics, it will simply lose its best, most competitive members. Further, low levels of reward for public serve have been shown to directly contribute to high levels of official corruption. So, beggaring politicians is a far from useful answer.
Yet another criticism of the Cabinet is that it reflects an oligarchy rather than democracy. This claim simply indicates that such critics are not familiar with the terms they are using.
In short, the government is made up of a majority of representatives elected by the people in a free and fair electoral process. This is, in a very real sense, the meaning of democracy. It may be argued that democracy also requires additional features, such as an independent and active judiciary, but no-one is suggesting that this government does not represent parties that achieved a clear majority of the vote in free and fair elections.
Conversely, the claim that the Cabinet represents an oligarchy does not stand up to scrutiny. It is true that six of the Cabinet ministers are related – three sets of two – two of whom were in the last ministry. But perhaps this reflects a lack of administrative talent rather than family favoritism.
More importantly, however, is that an oligarchy is a system of entrenched government reflecting the rule of a small, self-selecting group. Any Cabinet will reflect a common set of interests, as it has to implement a policy agenda for which it was voted into office. But this does not imply an oligarchy in any accepted sense of the term.
So, the question is, how does one best characterise the new government and its ministers? One way would be to say that, while some old faces have gone and there are new faces, there are unlikely to be any substantive changes in style or general direction.
One would hope this new government focuses more on district and rural development, to better share the benefits that are now being seen in Dili. One would also hope that the new government more carefully plans its expenditure and that it has a longer term plan for how the Petroleum Fund will be managed.
Finally, the previous government’s effort to curb corruption need to be stepped up. This government must be – and must be seen to be – impeccably clean. This will in part mean a more transparent and openly competitive government tendering process.
In that there has been, and will continue to be, criticism, this is also ‘business as usual’ in Timor-Leste. It is the responsibility of the Opposition to keep the government accountable.
One also hopes, then, that the Opposition keeps the government accountable in a more considered and less combative way. By moderating and more carefully considering its criticism, the Opposition will better position themselves to one day be a future alternative government.