Resigned to a non-resignation mentality | Mark Said

Cabinet ministers have to resign whenever the prime minister perceives the political costs of a minister staying in office to be higher than the benefits of keeping the status quo

Constitutional doctrine dictates that ministers are bound by the twin concepts of collective and individual ministerial responsibility. At least that is what we were taught at University when reading law. Collective ministerial responsibility is a constitutional custom that can be described as the glue which holds the Cabinet government together. It is a convention that all ministers publicly support decisions of the Cabinet (even if they disagree in private).

Ministers, then, are individually responsible for the work of their departments and are answerable to Parliament for all their departments’ activities. They are expected to accept responsibility for any failure in administration, any injustice to an individual or any aspect of policy that may be criticised in parliament, whether personally or not.

It should be stressed that ministers are expected to be responsible for everything under their aegis, and effectively they are expected to voluntarily exit their government department whether they are personally or not or directly or indirectly responsible for a policy or administration error. When and why should Cabinet ministers be forced out of office?

I contend that ministerial resignations cannot be understood as mechanistic consequences of serious personal or departmental errors as the classical responsibility hypothesis implies. Rather, they should follow a systematic political logic. Cabinet ministers have to resign whenever the prime minister perceives the political costs of a minister staying in office to be higher than the benefits of keeping the status quo.

The newest iteration of the doctrine in Malta appears to be that anyone but the minister is fair game after a failure. It has long been a complaint echoing throughout the corridors of Castille that officials are never sacked for complicity in policy failures. The practice of past administrations appears to have always been, and still appears to be, down to anyone but the minister to take responsibility. It has always been true that civil servants manage to ride out a lot of policy failure in their careers without too much damage. The old version of ministerial responsibility assumed that any failure should be laid at the door of the minister. That might have worked in an era when there were a handful of officials in a department and the state was much smaller.  But most people recognise that even the very best minister cannot really be held responsible for the distant actions of an official in a far-flung office.

There can be, as there were in the past, clear failures of political judgement, and ministers should take on their political responsibility for those. Those are the judgements they are there to make. But when it comes to a policy failure, it is harder to see inside the black box of decision making. We rarely see what the advice from officials says, and how ministers react to it.

Do they claim they can cope with the political fallout that officials cautioned might be a consequence? Or did officials (and their political advisers) fail to alert them? Do ministers task officials with delivering something that they have warned is very difficult to put into practice with the resources (time, money, capability) available?

I believe that too often there seems to be a Faustian pact between ministers and officials in our country. If civil servants find themselves regularly in the firing line, they need to insist on clear boundaries between ministerial decisions and civil service advice and implementation. That means they need to be much more robust in putting down objections to ministerial decisions in advance.

We might have had the odd political or ministerial resignation, for different reasons, in the past but definitely not in respect of the observance of the doctrine of collective responsibility. It was more for political convenience or due to a planned political and strategical move. The ‘resignations’ of Ministers Charles Mangion, Chris Said or Michael Falzon can reasonably be given such a connotation. When Mintoff resigned in the wake of the referendum on his proposal for integration with Britain and his insistence on greater British aid for Malta, it was in the hope of a snap election and a stronger mandate – for independence instead of integration. The result was that he ended up in the political wilderness for 13 years.

It was Prime Minister Alfred Sant who had offered his resignation as leader of the Labour Party after losing a parliamentary vote on the setting up of a yachting centre at Cottonera, when, incidentally, former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff voted with the opposition. Subsequently, early elections were held but, again, there was no resignation in the spirit of the constitutional doctrine expounded here. Neither was it in this spirit when Joseph Muscat stepped down as prime minister in January of 2020 following allegations of government corruption. It was neither exactly a resignation when he later quit Parliament.

This fear of and the cowardly reluctance of our politicians to resign when circumstances so warrant on the basis of the constitutional doctrine of ministerial and collective responsibility may be politically counter-productive in a sense. Whilst governments are prepared to push through policies that might seem unpopular in the short term, they are loath to behave in ways that court unpopularity in the long term. The effects of ministerial resignation on government popularity should theoretically have a corrective effect. There should be an increase in popularity following a resignation when contrasted with the negative effect of a refusal to resign when it is constitutionally dutiful to do so.

As long as we continue with this mentality, it will not be long before the word ‘resignation’ becomes a euphemism for being fired, rather than connoting a sense of public integrity and personal honour as it should.

Some ministers in the past made big mistakes but they never resigned; others made a small mistake but they immediately resigned! What makes a politician resign or not resign has something to do with having honour or not! Those who have honour always choose the honourable way: Resignation!

Mark Said is a lawyer