Shadow ministers in parliamentary democracy
The spirit of parliamentary democracy is in ensuring the accountability and transparency of the public office. The foremost task of a democratic government is to safeguard the rights of the people. The parliament plays an important role in ensuring that the government is fulfilling the responsibilities entrusted on it by the people. Thus, the parliament, in essence, works as an "accountability mechanism" for the democracy of a country.
There are numerous ways in which parliamentary democracy ensures accountability of the public office. One such mechanism is the tradition of establishing a "shadow cabinet of ministers," which monitors the activities of the real cabinet.
The Australian, British and Canadian democracies are examples of the existence and usefulness of shadow cabinets.
Take the case of the shadow cabinet of Australia, also known as the opposition Front Bench. It is comprised of a group of elected parliament members from the opposition party. These members form an alternative cabinet that "shadows" or marks each individual member of the government's cabinet. Members of a shadow cabinet are often appointed to a cabinet position if and when their party wins the election and forms the government.
In some parliamentary parties, such as Australian Labour Party, the members of the shadow cabinet are elected by party members, and the leader of the opposition then allocates portfolios to the shadow ministers. In other parliamentary parties, members of the shadow cabinet are selected by the leader of the opposition.
The Australian Labour Party formed the government after its win in the 2007 federal election. The current opposition party, the Liberal-National coalition, appointed 20 shadow ministers from their elected members. Shadow ministers were appointed for foreign affairs, trade, employment, treasury, education, indigenous affairs, regional development, energy resource, defence, health, housing, environment, agriculture, industry and communications.
The task of a shadow minister is to monitor the activities of the relevant ministry. The rationale of the shadow cabinet is to make the government's cabinet accountable for its activities and pre-election promises. A shadow minister also keeps a close connection with various stakeholders (such as employers, employees, suppliers, customers and shareholders) in relevant fields. This enables him to know about the various needs of the sector and put pressure on the government to take initiatives to solve various problems.
As an example, the shadow minister for education led the opposition's critique of waste and mismanagement in the Australian government's three years-long programme of development of school infrastructure as part of its economic stimulus plan. Subsequently, there were investigations, including one commissioned by the ministry of education, regarding the alleged waste in the program. These investigations surely help the government to ensure efficient implementation of the programme in the coming years.
The fundamental role of an opposition party is to make the ruling party accountable and to highlight the needs of the people. A shadow cabinet helps the opposition party to allocate work to members of the parliament. For example, the shadow minister for water resources is only concerned with various issues affecting various stakeholders who consume, supply and produce water. This specialisation helps the opposition party to be aware of activities of the government and the needs in water resource sector.
It also helps other constituents, such as journalists, commentators, educators and researchers, to find appropriate spokespersons from the opposition party in a policy debate. The shadow cabinet creates expertise in elected members in specific fields of interest. The specialisation of work will ultimately help the opposition party to select the cabinet members when it gets the mandate to form the government.
Overall, a shadow cabinet brings better and higher accountability in the parliamentary system of democracy. It makes elected members from the opposition party focus on specific areas and understand the needs of the people in a structured and systematic manner. Rather than discussing the needs of the people in general, a shadow ministry enables the opposition party to dedicate elected members to engage with various stakeholders of a relevant area.
A well-informed opposition party in the parliament effectively makes the ruling party more accountable for its activities. It also helps the opposition party to bring important issues to the attention of the government.
The Bangladesh Parliament can take an important lesson from the experience of the shadow cabinet system of Australia, United Kingdom, Canada and other countries. The general trend in Bangladesh is that the opposition boycotts the parliament and raises its voice outside. Most of the time, issues are raised without suggesting solutions or alternative courses of action.
Most importantly, street demonstrations, blockage and vandalism are used to exhibit the strength of the opposition and put the ruling party under pressure. The ultimate objective in all of this seems to be to gain popularity, defame the ruling party and demand an early election.
This objective is not unique to Bangladesh. Opposition parties of every country strive to pave a way to win the next election, but the means through which they do it are different. Through constructive criticism and prudent debate, the opposition can not only win the hearts of the people but also contribute to the development of the country. Such a process also attracts smart minds into politics. An effective and well-informed opposition party is essential for the success of any parliamentary democracy. A shadow cabinet truly offers such benefits.