Electoral reform part 1 – Trimming our obese cabinet

Although, OBESITY, with its contribution to diabetes and heart disease, is recognized as a drag on the economy, Reuters reports that the 2013 annual conference of the WEF in Davos discussed the subject but could not agree on what can or should be done about it.

 But Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party has no doubts about dealing with the OBESITY of the Israeli cabinet. He proposes a law stipulating that governments be limited to 18 ministers, each with a meaningful portfolio. At a press conference prior to the election he vowed that he would not serve as a minister-without-portfolio in the next government and urged other party leaders to make the same commitment adding that his commitment is binding on all members of his party. One may hope that this applies too, to frivolous deputy ministerial posts

 “It is unreasonable” he said “that the government continues to raise taxes on the Israeli middle class, and at the same time spends millions of shekels on redundant ministries.”

 Lapid is not alone in decrying the obesity of the cabinet. An unsuccessful bill proposed in June 2006 by then MK and Likud faction chair, (now Education Minister) Gideon Sa’ar would have cut the number of cabinet ministers to 18. Sa’ar said the bill, would lead to “more streamlined, less bloated cabinets” and would “help restore public faith in the political system.”

 Our first government under Ben Gurion comprised 15 ministers and no deputy ministers nor ministers without portfolio. From 1949 until the 13th government of Levi Eshkol that ended in 1969, the number of ministries varied between and 15 and 18

 In terms of article 33 of the Basic Law passed in 1992, the cabinet could not exceed eighteen ministers of whom at least one half were required to be Knesset members and article 37 limited the number of deputy ministers to eight. This law, which also introduced the ill fated system of direct election of the prime minister instead of his/her being elected as head of a party list, was repealed in March 2001 during the term of Ariel Sharon as PM. It was not PM Netanyahu who initiated the trend towards inflating the cabinet size. Sharon promptly increased his cabinet to 23 ministers, plus 8 without portfolios and 13 deputy ministers, making it necessary to increase the size of the cabinet table to accommodate them all. (Sourced from the Knesset web site)

 The proposal to reduce the cabinet size makes eminent sense when one considers that the outgoing government has 35 ministers and deputy ministers, each with very costly benefits including an office, a secretary and a car with driver.

 The 11th government under PM Levi Eshkol comprised one Deputy Prime Minister (Abba Eban) and ministers of Agriculture, Defense, Development, Education and Culture, Finance, Foreign Affair (Golda Meir), Health, Housing, Internal Affairs, Justice, Labor, Police, Postal Services, Religions, Trade and Industry, Transportation, Welfare and one Minister Without Portfolio;19 in all.

 By comparison the present 32nd government has two vice prime ministers and no less than seven deputy prime ministers. It would be safe to guess that very few MK’s or citizens would be able to define the duties of these high offices. Nor would they be able to explain why the former Ministry of Education and Culture has been split into two ministries; one for Education and another for Culture and Sport. Nor why separate ministries of Home Front Defense, Strategic Affairs, Internal security and Intelligence and Atomic energy, are now additional separate ministries instead of falling under the Ministry of Defense and why does Atomic energy not fall under the ministry of Science and Technology. And why do we need a separate Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs?  Is this not the function of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

 In addition one must ask what duties do the following eleven deputy ministers perform in order to earn their high salaries and perks; Senior Citizens, Advancement of Young People, Students and Women, Defense, Education, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Health, Industry, Trade, and Labor, Development of the Negev and Galil.

 One exception is the case of Deputy Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman. The Health Ministry is the third largest cabinet portfolio with a budget ofNIS24.3 billon a year. It is one of the largest employers inIsrael, responsible for over 20,000 workers. This ministry was reserved for the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party in terms of a coalition agreement but UTJ MKs express their opposition to Israel as a secular state by refraining from serving in ministerial positions, though a deputy ministerial position is acceptable. Interestingly when the party accepted the ministry, its top members, MKs Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman were competing for chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee. Gafni won this position and Litzman wound up as effective Health Minister though with the title of deputy Health Minister and PM Netanyahu acting nominally as Minister of Health.

 As I wrote in a recent article, an important proposal in Yesh Atid’s platform is to increase the voting threshold from 2% to 6% so as to reduce the number of parties in the Knesset and in the resulting coalitions. The multiplicity of parties in the coalitions inhibits consistent long-term national policies and like the result of OBESITY in humans, the cabinet OBESITY has dramatically shortened the lifespan of governments whose average duration have been two years.  The incoming government will be the 33rd since 1948. The average term of an Israeli cabinet minister is only 18 months, barely enough time to become acquainted with the intricacies of the job.  

Hopefully, with the entry of so many fresh and enthusiastic young newcomers in the government to be formed as well as in the opposition, we may look forward to electoral reform as a first step towards more rational decision making in all spheres of government.

 Parts 2 and 3 of this article will deal with other aspects of electoral reform

About the Author
Maurice Ostroff is a founder member of the international Coalition of Hasbara Volunteers, better known by its acronym CoHaV, (star in Hebrew), a world-wide umbrella organization of volunteers active in combating anti-Israel media and political bias and in promoting the positive side of Israel His web site is at www.maurice-ostroff.org