February 24, 2016

Features of Westminster: Shadow Cabinet

By Aldric

Every day when the Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Commons assemble, honourable and noble members walk through the Halls of Westminster. Among them is the Leader of Her Majesy’s Most Loyal Opposition – currently The Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn, who is also the Leader of the Labour Party. In 2010, this post was held by The Right Honourable David Cameron, Tory Leader, from 2005 to 2010. Sadly Cameron lost the post in 2010…

Tory Leader and then Opposition Leader, The Right Honourable David Cameron MP, with his Shadow Cabinet.

…when he became the Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury.

So what is a Shadow Cabinet?

According to the UK Parliament‘s website:

The Shadow Cabinet is the team of senior spokespeople chosen by the Leader of the Opposition to mirror the Cabinet in Government. Each member of the shadow cabinet is appointed to lead on a specific policy area for their party and to question and challenge their counterpart in the Cabinet. In this way the Official Opposition seeks to present itself as an alternative government-in-waiting.

Merits of the Shadow Cabinet

First, it shows that the Opposition in Parliament is organised and ready to attack. More importantly, they are ready and prepared to keep the Executive accountable through the ever-so-prized “checked and balance”. In Malaysian context, we will know which PKR/DAP/PAS MP is keeping an eye on Nazri Aziz. There is a form of consistency and continuity. That MP can compile his or her own dossier of the tussles in the august chamber with the Minister they shadow. It reduces the burden of the opposition’s sole attack dog – if any.

Secondly, focused policy proposals. Shadow Ministers and Spokesperson are the MPs responsible to formulate their party’s stand on various issues. Let us take the Home Ministry – so the sparring partner is a “Shadow Minister/Spokesperson for the Home Ministry“.

In Malaysia, the Home Affairs portfolio covers a lot of issues: immigration, visa application, civil defense, police & law enforcement, security, anti-corruption, electoral issues, anti-narcotics, publication & censorship among many. The Shadow Minister or Shadow Spokesperson is responsible to present the party’s stand clearly on these issues in and outside of Parliament. Obviously it is not limited to “Yes we support” or “No, we oppose”. Let us take the recent Rohingya refugees. What is the party’s stand? Will they accept or turn these refugees away? If they accept, what are their measures and for how long? If they reject, how will the party propose to re-direct the boats? Will the party propose a special Bill to Parliament had it been in power to allow a extraordinary documentation, travel document or visa?

But that’s unfair to shove to one MP!

Yes, it is unfair. Please do not tell me that DAP, PKR, PAS, Amanah, etc only has that pool of people? I’m certain there are think tanks supporting them. Surely there must be party members and supporters who are passionate about the topics? The beauty of being in a Shadow Cabinet is you offer a hypothetical alternative based on information available in public spheres: legislation, costing and more.

Above all, the costing of the measures. Please do not tell me that non-Barisan parties have no accountants (chartered, professional, or trained) or auditors among them! What better way to show the people that you are aware of money matters before you actually have to handle them? Each year, you have something to present in your alternative or Shadow Budget.

Third, Shadow Cabinet and Spokesperson formulate policies before the next election or check the viability of your last manifesto. Many people think that just because the Opposition failed to wrangle Putrajaya from Barisan Nasional they can discard their last manifesto. You still have MPs and ADUNs elected based on those promise. Yes, you cannot make subsidiary legislation for you are not the Minister. This is the time to push that agenda. It shows consistency and commitment to a policy.

Mesyuarat Agung? Or Family Reunion?

In the 90s, the Barisan Alternative had a beautiful tagline: anti-nepotism & anti-cronyism. Apakah perjuanganmu telah selesai? Or are you committing the same sin you fought to oppose? Is it a policy to prohibit immediate members of your family to hold public office at the same time you hold your term? Is the policy a good one to keep? Or was it a mistake? After the current Parliament term is over, is the solution still viable?

Opposition and Government Front Bench in the Commons, Westminster.

Finally, principles of accountability and checks and balances. Yes, through the Legislature, the Opposition as the duty of performing checks and balances on the Executive. To prevent tyranny, Montesquieu came with the idea where the branches of government keeps each other in check and balance. But who keeps the Opposition accountable?

DAP’s battle cry is to deny Barisan Nasional a 2/3 majority in the Sarawak State Assembly (Chong said, not me one). In 2011, Lim Kit Siang also said the same thing on his blog. But who makes sure that the Opposition walks the talk? How does the MPs and ADUNs intend to keep the Executive in check in the respective august Chambers when they either get suspended or walk out? As an elected member of the legislature, attendance to its meetings is a forefront responsibility, duty, and privilege. Anyone can speak to the media and at ceramahs. Anyone can issue press releases and make blog posts on issues. Only those selected few have the trust, the honour, and the responsibility to be part of the Government through the elected body.

His Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition keeps His Majesty’s Government in check. The former ensures that the later governs and delivers. Sometimes the former does the same. In a democracy, albeit a representational democracy, does this mean the tug-of-war is limited to only the two? It is unfair for the Opposition to be compared against the Government. So how do we keep them accountable? To make sure they are consistent with their own policies, programmes, and ideology. How can we do that if they won’t even outline their policies?

Brewing Distrust Among the Electorate

Being in Opposition is easier than in Government. You gain minimal scrutiny. What you say and do will not be highlighted by foreign media – most of the time.

Alas, we have evolved into a unique democracy since 2008. While DAP-PKR-(fill in the space) forms the official opposition in the Parliament of Malaysia, they form the Government in the states of Kelantan, Selangor, and Penang. In those chambers, the Barisan Nasional form its Opposition.

Yet its debacle and infighting only proves my suspicions from all these years. They have no idea what they are doing, where they are going, and how they are getting there. The demographics and psychographics of the Malaysian electorate is changing. The citizens and voters not only distrust the Barisan Nasional, not more are distrusting the Pakatan (Insert Name).

A Shadow Cabinet may be the only solution at either Regional or Federal level – whether a State of Malaya or a Party to Malaysia.