Jokowi to blame for Cabinet’s lack of collective responsibility — Johannes Nugroho

JULY 19 — At a recent Iftar meeting to break fast with leading figures of the Indonesian press, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo denied rumours of an impending Cabinet reshuffle. Half-jokingly, the President told his audience that it was the media that had “first used the word reshuffle”, while all he had asked from his ministers were performance reports.

However, to rule out changes in the Cabinet may altogether be too hasty. Widodo’s statements on contentious issues tend to be opaque and in the past he has juggled with semantics to explain his decisions.

To give an example, when he appointed political party figures as ministers , contrary to his earlier promise of a technocratic Cabinet, he reasoned that they all had “professional experience” in their respective portfolios.

Given the overall lack of good news on the economic front, personnel changes may be what the government needs to recover public confidence. After all, recent public surveys revealed that only around 40 per cent of the respondents professed themselves to be satisfied with the government, while almost 70 per cent were unhappy with its economic underperformance.

Economics aside, any future change to the Cabinet should aim at bringing about greater collective responsibility and coherence to the administration as a whole. A well-established constitutional convention in Westminster-style democracies such as the United Kingdom and Australia, cabinet collective responsibility allows ministers to debate policy initiatives at confidential meetings, but requires them to support and defend the government’s position once a decision has been made, irrespective of their original stance.

This is especially important now, since Indonesian ministers interact with the media almost on a daily basis. Long gone are the old days under President Suharto when the Minister of Information acted as the government’s official mouthpiece, often speaking on behalf of the other ministers. The fact that the current government is supported by a coalition of parties further mandates a degree of cohesion and unity to give it credibility.

Regrettably, displays of unity and collective responsibility are scarce in Widodo’s current Cabinet.

The latest political intrigue was the allegation that State-Owned Enterprises Minister Rini Soemarno belittled the President by describing him as someone who “knows nothing” at a public event.

As a serving minister, it was undoubtedly unethical for Soemarno — if she indeed made the statement — to declare the President to be incompetent, but it was all the more extraordinary that Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo spoke to the press about the incident.

It remains unclear whether the minister had prior consultations with the President before going ahead with his press statement. However, Kumolo is known to be a loyalist of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri, Widodo’s political patron. In light of the recently soured relations between Megawati and Soemarno, his motive in outing the affair was even more suspect.

No experience, not consistent

An important part of collective responsibility is Cabinet confidentiality. Unfortunately, its breach is often mistaken for independence of mind and has in some cases increased the perpetrator’s popularity.

Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, no stranger to controversy, told the press in May that she had informed the President she wanted her ministry’s budget tripled next year.

“The President asked if he could talk me into lowering the figure. I said ‘no’, ” Pudjiastuti said.

Far from being criticised for leaking the details of Cabinet discussions so brazenly, she was lauded by members of the public for her “courage”.

There are also signs that communication channels between the President’s office and the ministries are badly clogged. Witnessing the inefficiency at Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok harbour during a visit, Widodo alleged that about 870 trillion rupiah (RM246.726 billion) had been lost to the unnecessarily long dwell times at Indonesian harbours. He also threatened to dismiss the officials responsible for the bottleneck, including ministers.

Almost immediately, Ignasius Jonan, the Transport Minister, rebutted the President’s claim, questioning the validity of the figure. The figure had probably been supplied by the President’s aides but it had clearly never been crosschecked with the Transportation Ministry. As a result, the President’s credibility suffered a blow and it was delivered by one of his own ministers.

Ultimately, the President himself is partly to blame for the dysfunction of his administration. For one, Widodo has not always been consistent vis-a-vis his ministers. Early on, he told everyone that a sitting minister would have to relinquish any political party post. But Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs Puan Maharani, Megawati’s daughter, seems to be exempt from the rule. She was again named as the (non-active) head of the PDI-P’s politics and security department in April.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Dr Sofyan Djalil, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy, admitted that part of the reason for the economic slowdown was that “as a newly elected President, Widodo, didn’t ‘have the experience’ to know that an early decision to restructure several ministries would delay spending even longer.”

The statement certainly shed some light on how seasoned technocrats such as Dr Djalil see Widodo.

The President’s inexperience, personnel quirks and various political factors may well be behind the Cabinet’s lacklustre performance. Let us just hope the learning curve will eventually yield tangible results. — TODAY

* Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.