Timor Leste's 5th Constitutional Government in session.

This is a guest post from Martin Hardie, who teaches law at Deakin University in Australia. 

He was Legal officer for CNRM in the 1990’s and he worked in East Timor from 1999-2001 as advisor to the CNRT Transitional Council, to Avelino Coelho when he was a member of the UNTAET NCC and to Joao Carrascalao when he was a Minister in the East Timorese Transitional Administration.

He has recently been in East Timor and assisted Avelino Coelho in his capacity as Secretary of State for Energy Policy in drafting a proposed law on renewable energy for Timor Leste. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.

East Timorese newspaper Tempo Semanal published an article this week which claims that the new Timorese Government represents “an oligarchy”, and criticises the new government for its size and for the fact that it contained some brothers and sisters. There was criticism of the last Timorese Government for many reasons, including corruption. However, this same government established the Anti-Corruption Commission (KAK) which has led to some former ministers being investigated and in one case found guilty.

However, these recent claims that the government is too big and is because of this somehow by inference corrupt warrant some further analysis.

My point in writing this is to try and add another viewpoint to the debate, to try and make people think about the situation a little more deeply, rather than just repeating easy catchphrases. I may be right or I may be wrong. That is not the issue.

The debate needs to be just a little bit less dogmatic and break out of what Paolo Friere described as a “circle of certainty” that it has been trapped within this week. In saying that partly what I want to do is to try and situate the debate so far within the context of a global policy agenda.

In comparison with Australia the number of ministries is not large. Timor will have 17 ministries. Australia has 40. In Australia these 40 ministries are concentrated in the hands of only 21 people, that is power is more centralised. But this is not the real point.

In response to some of the comments that have been made on the article my colleague at Deakin University, professor Damien Kingsbury wrote on the ETAN mailing list:

However, if you understand them as being the equivalent of Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries (same as vice-ministers in other parliamentary systems) and heads of departments with ministerial accountability, then this all starts to look much more like a normal parliamentary system.

If you compare Timor-Leste to, say South Australia (the population of SA is a little larger than T-L, but not much), you will see that SA has 15 ministers – only two less than Timor-Leste, but without the further responsibilities that come from running a country and not a state, e.g. defence, telecommunications, etc.

So maybe Timor-Leste does not have so many ministers after all. It just looks that way when a range of different individuals with different responsibilities and levels of responsibility are put in the same category.

There is a lot of merit in what Professor Kingsbury has said. The first thing is to put the criticisms about size into perspective. Timor will not have 55 Ministers but a mix of Ministers, Vice Ministers and Secretaries of State.

Tempo Semanal quoted my old friend and the head of Luta Hamutuk NGO, Mericio Akara as saying:

This new structure will not be effective and efficient, because too big and full of political interest. And full of political interest this structure will be more high cost, and I think every year government need more budgets to serve those Ministers. For us as a civil society better to invest more budget in the development sector rather than invest more budget in supporting new ministers.

Underlying this criticism appears to be an assumption that small government is always good. The argument seems to be that a big Cabinet is expensive and thus wasteful, that Timor is small and has many problems and that this waste cannot be afforded.

On the other hand there has been and will still be a massive escalation of revenue and of expenditure by the government. If this there is a need for the development of the country, do the critics really believe that the implementation of these expanding programs should be managed by a small team of political appointments who can be held publicly accountable or by a big team of civil servants, who cannot be so easily held accountable? Or do they believe that unaccountable NGO’s should be responsible?

Or, are they arguing that the party that lost the election should be responsible? Is it not better to use political appointments and hence political control to oversee the process and in so doing increase the possibilities for public accountability? Or should Timor even ask UNTAET to come back and manage the country?

The logic of small government and was the logic pushed by the UNTAET during my time in Timor and implemented though a range of bodies such as the IMF, the World Bank and those NGO’s that compose what is called ‘civil society’. It appears that not much has changed and if anything critical analysis has all but disappeared. In its place we have criticisms of the new government which all seem to be drawn from the template of ‘good governance’ espoused by these organisations. Behind this template stands a policy which asserts that the primary function of the Third World state is to universalise private property rights.

Small government, handing over its tasks to ‘civil society’ and the private sector to enable growth and the development of a competitive economy, is touted as the answer to Timor’s problems. The latter, a competitive economy, is after all the centrepiece of the opposition party FRETILIN’s alternate program for government. I mention FRETILIN because they have also been in the press repeating these criticisms. The argument also ignores the question of if the whether less Ministers means more unelected bureaucrats, ‘experts’ and consultants.

Amongst all of this we have the criticism by some of the Timorese NGOs that the new Government structure is the result of political motivations. Underlying this is a logic that somehow government should not be political, or the result of political decisions but only or primarily economic ones. The becoming economic of government and of society is itself one of the hallmarks of neoliberalism. It is a part of the process of the commodification of all aspects of life.

The new Timorese government is driven by political concerns – and so it should be. But this does not mean it is not concerned with waste, corruption or nepotism. What the government reflects is firstly the ‘will of the (majority of the) people’ expressed at the recent election – thus leaving one to wonder who the “us in civil society” mentioned by Akara in fact refers to. It seems to be the same civil society that these global institutions have enlisted as part of its drive to commodify life throughout the planet. These political concerns also reflect the long standing practice of Xanana Gusmao to be as inclusive as possible, whether in resistance, transition or government. This is good politics and it is good politics that Timor needs along with the stability that the people seem to desire.

One could quite as easily characterise the new government as being formed on the basis of giving its Ministers, Vice-Ministers and Secretaries of State more specialised and more focussed responsibilities – they appear to be more defined. Importantly, the creation of the portfolio of President of the Council of Ministers, to be held by the former State Secretary Agio Pereira, and the appointment of Avelino Coelho as State Secretary for the Council of Ministers suggests that Prime Minister Gusmao is alive to the importance of his Ministry’s performance and the need to keep Ministers accountable. Giving these portfolios to two experienced and competent politicians can only be a sign of the increased focus upon what the NGO’s call for: ‘good governance’. This internal check on ministerial power combined with the work of Aderito Soares in the Anti-Corruption Commission is a good thing for the administration of government in Timor.

Another criticism levied at the new government is that of nepotism. Timorese society continues to reflect its traditions, which have yet been wiped away in the name of smoothing the space of the globe and making it safe for business. Having worked in both Timor and Arnhem Land I see many similarities in the manner in which these societies are organised. Tradition and societal bonds in Timor are not just a replica of what we disingenuously call ‘community’ in Australia. Timor has community rather than a society of entrepreneurs and consumers. Bonds other than economic ones still exist between people. Family really is the basis of society.

As a result of colonisation and occupation there is a limited number of people with the skills needed to perform the tasks of government at this point in time. That skills base is further limited by the fact that it is divided up amongst two principal political parties and nineteen others which contested the recent election. The reality is that it is almost impossible not to find family members operating in similar areas.

And oppositional politics makes this even harder. The criticisms of the government on this basis need to be put into this context and the manner in which Timorese society has been traditionally organised. To just blindly object to a Government on the basis that some people are related is really not far from saying that what you really want is a government that is not Timorese, in the sense that you want a government which does not reflect the composition of society, but one that reflects some template of ‘good governance’ promoted in a glossy World Bank pamphlet.

Related to this is the issue of the in-built cynicism of the criticisms. They seem to assume that someone is appointed to the Ministry must be seen as an opportunity to corrupt, or an act of corruption, and not a burden which involves working harder. Of course, perhaps it is or will be (in some cases): but critics must develop a way of framing these concerns. Should a family be criticised for accepting more than one post in the government or should it be praised for taking on the burden?

There is a further aspect to this criticism of nepotism that cannot be left unremarked. The mantras of growth and building markets, such as those espoused by FRETILIN and some of the NGO’s, promote a vision of Timor as a fully-fledged capitalist society. It is a long way from this at the moment. What private sector exists does so essentially because of government spending of one sort or another. According to neoliberal theorists such as Hayek, the natural state of people was to cooperate, and as such competitive markets are not natural, they must be constructed. According to this theory the role of the state is to create the conditions for competition. This is done by what Marx termed primitive accumulation, through what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession. Accumulation of land, money, resources and the dispossession of the people of the same things.

My point is not to defend this, nor to defend any nepotism or corruption that may be occurring and which is also occurring in my own country and globally. Need I state the obvious and mention the current banking crisis, the austerity drives, or the dismantling of the public sector throughout the world by those that say government should be less political and more economic? Need I mention the growing global revolt against this? But here NGO’s and others who want to promote this model, competitive markets, growth, the creation of a middle class and building markets cry foul when the process they champion and yearn for might actually be taking place. If the NGOs are to be credible they can’t have it both ways. They can’t just roll out the global ‘good governance’ template, cry foul and apply it without analysis.

The situation reminds me of the thoughts of Paolo Freire in the opening pages of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The NGO’s and others seem to suffer from “an absence of doubt”. Their positions are true positions and the manner in which their message has gone viral is itself an example of Freire’s “circle of certainty”. In contrast, it might be that the Government does not suffer from such an absence; it appears to be acting politically in a political context and it appears to have considered its previous mistakes and acted accordingly. As Freire might say, the NGO’s may actually need to confront their own position, to actually think and analyse the template they seem to have adopted. Confront, listen, unveil. This is the lesson of Freire. Think rather than repeat the glib mantras of the custodians of a crumbling global system.

The new Timorese Government is not an oligarchy. For Aristotle an oligarchia designated the rule of the few for the few, rule that was exercised not by the best, but by bad men unjustly. Aristotle differentiated an oligarchy from an aristocracy where government by the few is vested in the best individuals. In the case of Timor the people (civil society) decided the best individuals are those that formed the government led by Xanana. It may be an aristocracy but it is an elected one.

Even Wikipedia tell us that an oligarchy is a form of government in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. Here the NGO’s complain that there are too many people!

An oligarchy also infers a ruling power bloc. What is apparent in Timor is that there are no consolidated permanent power blocs. Given the absence of power blocs in the oligarchic sense everything must be negotiated and this is the hallmark of Gusmao’s style. There was even room for the opposition FRETILIN to be included in one way or another in this Government, an offer which it seems FRETILIN rejected.

The task of negotiation and inclusion is one that the people and history have currently given to Xanana Gusmao. It is not an enviable or easy task and it is not one that is left to his whim to undertake in a vacuum. The reality is that it is a political task and not one that conforms to a pre-ordained template.

 

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