Wake up, cabinet ministersA bizarre scene took place in the Lee Myung-bak administration’s cabinet conference room the other day. The weekly cabinet meeting presided over by the Prime Minister could not start on time because half the cabinet ministers failed to appear and half the seats must be filled in order to start the meeting. The staff at the Prime Minister’s Office had to run around with their mobile phones contacting all of the ministers.
The cabinet meeting is the top forum for policy deliberation under our unique government structure, which combines a presidential system with a parliamentary cabinet system. It may have less power under an entirely parliamentary system but has greater authority than a ministers’ meeting under a presidential system.
The cabinet meeting, empowered by Article 89 of the Constitution, is more or less the state’s executive branch. All government policies must undergo the cabinet’s deliberation - and approval - before being submitted to the president for his final endorsement. Simply put, no policies can be presented to the president without prior cabinet approval.
To the cabinet meeting participants, there should be no more important affair than that. Yet one such meeting failed to start on time because the ministers were either absent or late. We have to wonder if the ministers have their priorities straight.
The excuses for poor attendance were also ludicrous. Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Chung Byoung-gug was at a breakfast meeting with legislators. Lee Jae-oh, minister without portfolio, went to a seminar hosted by a graduate school of Korea University. And Public Administration and Security Minister Maeng Hyung-kyu arrived too late to attend because he was stuck in traffic.
During the meeting, Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik remarked on the spread of moral hazard in public institutions. One diplomat was recently caught by the customs office trying to sneak elephant tusks into the country in his moving boxes and Financial Supervisory Service officials came under fire for their shady connections and poor oversight of the savings bank industry.
What poses a bigger threat to the Lee administration is the lax office discipline and work ethic among cabinet members. With their bosses setting such poor examples, we can hardly expect government officials to demonstrate a faithful commitment to public service. The cabinet ministers need to be the first to get their acts together.