Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

"Kleinere Kabinette besser?" (Are small cabinets better) by Dr Melanie Sully, in Die Presse

Article in the Austrian daily, Die Presse, by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (5.10. 2013) on the optimal size of parliaments and governments with international comparisons in the light of the formation of a new Austrian cabinet after parliamentary elections. Plus:
A current debate in Austria on parliamentary hearings for Ministers and a similar discussion in the UK House of Commons on pre-training and feed back for Ministers and possible candidates. What qualifications should our leaders have? 
FM4 Radio Interview "The Job of a Minister", with Dr Melanie Sully, 10.9. 2013

 Are small cabinets better? To save money several countries have toyed with the idea of cutting the numbers in government with mixed success as Dr Melanie Sully explains in this article in "Die Presse".
Also on this theme an article and radio interview on the Austrian channel of FM4 in English.

 

MINISTER HEARINGS – WHO’s LISTENING?

By Prof Dr Melanie Sully

What qualifications should potential ministers possess? Should they be knowledgeable about the affairs of the ministry they seek to run---have a competence in a certain field eg health, education, transport. How necessary are language skills for a foreign minister when most critical negotiations are translated by experts? Should they rather be astute administrators who can manage ministries and sell the product to the media? In fact few ideas exist of the job description of a cabinet minister and much like an MP they are learning by doing. Often with substantial professional salaries this seems an odd situation in this day and age when specific conditions have to be met for most top posts. Should we not take the affairs of state more seriously than to be left to the whims of a new boy or girl experimenting on the job? Increasingly this question is being posed in many countries eg the UK and currently Austria in the pre-election phase when the task of selecting a cabinet will soon be on the agenda.

In Britain for example, the last few Prime Ministers have walked into Downing Street with no prior experience in government. The choice of ministers is inevitably based on weighing up party loyalties, balance between rival factions, coalition partners, geographical regions and gender. A prime minister soon discovers that there are not enough jobs to go round for all those he or she may owe favours to and in the UK the number of cabinet ministers is capped by law. Similar restrictions on the numbers in cabinet exist in other countries eg Ireland and Belgium. In Britain therefore a host of junior ministers are created in the hope of maintaining loyalty to the government without too much thought for what they might really be doing.

The end of a ministerial career is similarly unpredictable and it is difficult to see by what standards success or failure is measured. Again, unlike other professions, there is little feed-back on how the minister may be performing until it is too late and a phone call suddenly comes to vacate the position. How often should the cabinet be reshuffled and under what conditions? This was recently looked at in the House of Commons and generally it was considered that two years is the minimum period for a minister, the time necessary to get to know the ministry and develop a feel for the problems on hand. However there were arguments put in favour of feed-back during the time in office and pre-ministerial training both for aspiring candidates in government but also for the opposition leaders so that when the time comes the country is not faced by a collection of novices eager to learn but nevertheless wet behind the ears.

In some countries there are constitutional provisions for minister hearings before the swearing in eg in Romania by a parliamentary committee and in Slovenia although little evidence can be marshalled to attest to the improved quality of government or otherwise.

In Austria the case for minister hearings has long featured on the agenda of reform groups seeking to improve democracy. It has recently become entangled in an inter-coalition dispute with one side advocating the plan and the senior party in the coalition opposed. The Federal President too is unhappy with the idea noting that the President can and has in the past, rejected proposals for ministers. Yet this decision might have precious little to do with quality control or an assessment of qualifications.

One idea would be for ministers to undergo a hearing in parliament and for the Federal President to retain his right to block proposals. Once in the job a minister resigns following a loss of a confidence motion in parliament but this has never happened. On the contrary such a move can often cement government support for a beleaguered minister making it less likely that he or she will get the chop. A former Chancellor has joined the debate and doubts whether parliamentary hearings for ministers in spe will do much to improve quality. The questions and answers received would not be a guide to future competence, so the argument goes and the whole thing would degenerate into a “senseless ritual”. Others believe such hearings would simply be a “farce” in which it would be clear from the start what the result would be.

So we are left with hearings and so far few listeners. Meanwhile the press in Austria enjoys speculating throughout the Summer about who will get what job in the new cabinet.

Vienna, July 2013

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