Last week, the public reactions of some Government Ministers to the White Paper position regarding the removal of traditional rulers who extend beyond the boundaries of their constitutional domain, generated public debate.
At the center of the discussion is whether the actions of the Ministers breached the doctrine of collective responsibility stipulated in article 117 of the Constitution. This provision states that Ministers shall collectively be responsible for any decision made by the Cabinet.
How do Cabinets make decisions?
Of course different Cabinets may operate in quite different ways but I base my observations upon what is practiced in Britain, New Zealand and Australia where ostensibly ministers are bound by Westminster conventions, as is the case in Uganda.
In most cases an acceptable consensus emerges even though strongly held contrary views may have been expressed during the cabinet session. Sometimes ministers take divergent positions but on many occasions are made.
The way a government works from the inside, despite all the formalities is very informal. That is how decisions are actually made and it is in very extraordinary circumstances that an issue is put to a vote.
What does Cabinet do? Cabinet is the central clearing house through which all decisions a government makes must go. Its functions are broadly set out in Article 111 of the Constitution. In addition to serving as a clearing house, Cabinet:
Facilitates information exchange.
Arbitrates disputes between ministers.
Takes political decisions for the Government.
Originates government policy
Coordinates overlapping government activities.
Defines the long term strategic interests of government
Makes major expenditure decisions.
Manages political crises when these occur.
Acts as a watchdog over individual ministers.
To efficiently manage its decision-making Cabinet usually establishes a series of committees, which are administratively supported by the Cabinet Secretariat.
What is responsibility?
The responsibility of the cabinet is both individual and collective. The cabinet stands or falls together.
Disagreements may be aired within the cabinet, but once a decision has been reached, every member must accept that decision and be prepared to defend it in the House and on the â€œhustings.â€ Members who cannot do this must resign their offices and risk ending their political careers. On the other hand, if a minister is forced to take unpopular measures in an individual capacity, the cabinet will close ranks unless the ministerâ€™s action runs counter to the cabinetâ€™s policies or prior decisions.
On July 10, 1967, the President then, Milton Obote dismissed Hon. C. J. Obwangor from the Cabinet because he made a speech in the Constituent Assembly criticising some aspects of the Governmentâ€™s proposals for the new Constitution. That minister had participated at meeting of the cabinet and never indicated to his colleagues or to the President that he disagreed with some of the articles.
Although, many commentators have compared the present situation to the situation of 1967, I would argue differently. It has now been reported in the media that the contentious provision was included in the White Paper upon the instructions of the President after his meeting with the Kabaka on September 1, 2004.
Apparently, many ministers were not aware of the provision because it was not
the outcome of a Cabinet
But even if it was true that Cabinet met and decided on the matter in their absence, it was the duty of the Prime Minister or the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to bring this development to the attention of every minister before tabling the revised White Paper in Parliament.
White Paper: Cabinet stands or falls as one!