An astute reshuffle

Robert Abela’s Cabinet reshuffle last night affected no fewer than 10 ministers but saw only one junior minister, Silvio Parnis, lose his job. But if the reshuffle is seen only in terms of ministerial snakes and ladders, its most important meaning will be missed.

Robert Abela’s changes affect four out of his five declared strategic pillars for economic growth: sustainability, education, infrastructure, and carbon neutrality by 2050. Each ministerial change contributes to an overall electoral strategy.

It also highlights a puzzle. The only pillar not affected is governance. Edward Zammit Lewis, the justice minister; Rosianne Cutajar, his PS; and Alex Muscat, PS within the home affairs ministry, all remain with the same portfolios. Never mind the proximity to Yorgen Fenech (Zammit Lewis and Cutajar) and Nexia BT (Muscat), and the fact that more information is expected to emerge in the Caruana Galizia inquiry.

Add Justyne Caruana to them. She resigned in January because of her husband’s dealings with Fenech. She returns after less than a year of paying her dues (or, perhaps, us paying hers — given what she’s since been paid out of the public coffers in direct orders, chairmanship of a parliamentary committee, and so on).

Clearly, the prime minister is assessing the situation differently from his national and international critics, who make governance their central focus.

But first, some snakes and ladders. The biggest Cabinet in history just got bigger. The total number of ministers and parliamentary secretaries remained the same, but the number of ministers was increased by two.

The portfolios given to Owen Bonnici (Research, Innovation and Coordination of the post-COVID-19 strategy) and Julia Farrugia Portelli (Inclusion and Quality of Life) could easily have been the remit of a parliamentary secretary in past governments. Indeed, Michael Farrugia (elderly and active ageing) was given a portfolio that was a junior minister’s right until yesterday — Silvio Parnis — who was simply sacked.

The prime minister clearly wants to be seen as responsive to criticism from the business, health, and school sectors about how the pandemic was handled. He wants to restart with a clean slate — and, in upgrading the elderly portfolio to full ministerial status, he is signalling the importance he gives the sector.

The other partial demotions concern two ministers previously on the rise. Ian Borg has had construction taken away — an area not handled with sensitivity since the Santa Venera tragedy. Silvio Schembri has lost both Malta Enterprise (to Miriam Dalli) and Air Malta (to Clyde Caruana) — again, a response to critics both within and outside Labour.

Apart from Justyne Caruana’s return to Cabinet, the promotions to senior posts all concern new people: Miriam Dalli, Clyde Caruana, Clayton Bartolo, and Aaron Farrugia, a minister only since January, and the only one given larger responsibilities (construction). Two have been MPs only since 2017; the other two since just a few weeks ago.

Between them, they cover environment and climate change, economy and finance, energy, employment and tourism. For the sectors on which electoral victory depends, Abela has appointed new faces, with no direct tie to Joseph Muscat, at least not in current public perception, though the reality is more complex.

He has been responsive to criticism over the pandemic and distanced himself as far as he could from the Panama Gang. So why no action over governance?

Because Abela cannot afford to. This reshuffle is sensitive to the economic lobbies and the Labour base. But action against Zammit Lewis, Cutajar and Alex Muscat would make Abela look weak with Party activists.  Parnis was someone who angered the Labour base, including in his own constituency.

Abela is keen to minimise dissent. That’s why ministers who were effectively demoted still retained their ministerial title.

The signal sent by the reshuffle will ensure a ruthless battle for votes in Labour heartlands — which can only warm the heart of the prime minister. Electoral competition is not the same as internal dissent. Dissent undermines the prime minister. Competition is based on snuggling up to him. It mobilises votes, not discourages them.

Ian Borg and Silvio Schembri will want to reassert their primacy in their respective districts. Justyne Caruana’s return to Cabinet will lead to a wild fight for primacy between three ministers in Gozo.

In the third district, Chris Fearne and Clayton Bartolo will battle with Owen Bonnici and Carmelo Abela, with Helena Dalli’s extra votes to play for. The third district’s top spot has gone to a different Labour politician in the last three general elections.

In the fourth district, Silvio Parnis will retire and Konrad Mizzi will be irrelevant. It will be another Labour stronghold for new faces to assert themselves. Dissent and anger in the Labour base will be addressed by giving voters the possibility of change, without abstention.

On the whole, then, Robert Abela has done the best with what he’s got. He’s prepared the ground to mobilise votes while telling the economic opinion leaders that the key economic decisions are in new hands.

As for governance, he’s wagering that’s a shiny object to mesmerise the critics.

Editorial note (23 November, 2020): In the column, it is wrongly claimed that Clayton Bartolo contests in the Third District. In fact, he contests in the Twelfth. The error is regretted and we thank the reader who pointed it out. The more general point still stands, however: as a result of the reshuffle, the jockeying for position among Labour candidates, including on the Third District, will be keener.

An astute reshuffle