Robert Abela was handed a poisoned chalice when he was appointed Prime Minister following a catastrophic political crisis. Ten months later, he’s applying his first antidote with a cabinet reshuffle. Unfortunately, one quick glance and it’s looking more like a placebo.
Abela’s new Cabinet is the “largest, most-female, and most Gozitan” in history as has been repeated ad nauseam. However, in reality, it is an exercise in bloating state finances to enrich government MPs and soothe politicians’ fragile egos.
There are many positives it should be made clear. Miriam Dalli, as expected, is Malta’s new Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development, lending some much-needed political acumen to the nation’s ambitious carbon-neutrality plans.
Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Planning Aaron Farrugia has also swallowed up the construction portfolio, signalling hope that the environment might finally become a priority.
Meanwhile, Clayton Bartolo has been promoted to ever-crucial Tourism Ministry, which floundered under his predecessor Julia Farrugia Portelli while the country faced a pandemic that decimated the sector. Bartolo has experience under the Finance Ministry that will prove useful to the struggling industry.
Finance Minister Edward Scicluna has also been shown the door in favour of Clyde Caruana. Caruana, a technocrat with a fresh outlook, could provide much-needed impetus to the sector in the face of a looming Moneyval test. A change in faces can also work wonders.
Still, a handful of astute appointments should not cover up the glaring issues that remain.
Scicluna is not leaving Abela’s Cabinet empty-handed after being appointed to Central Bank Governor, making sure that the man so central to Joseph Muscat’s administration remains content.
At the same time, several Cabinet members who are facing serious allegations over their relationship with Yorgen Fenech, the main suspect in the Daphne Caruana Galizia, have remained.
Most worryingly, Justyne Caruana has been re-appointed to Cabinet as Education Minister despite being booted out just five days into her tenure. There is mounting evidence that her recently-estranged husband, former Deputy Police Commissioner Silvio ‘L-Ohxon’ Valletta, leaked sensitive details on the Daphne Caruana Galizia investigation to Fenech.
Ten months later, Abela’s opinion of Caruana has changed, and so has the Education Minister’s bank account after she pocketed at least €60,000 in direct order consultancies.
In a normal democracy, Caruana would never have been brought back into the fold when an investigation into her husband is on-going. Accepting re-appointments like Caruana’s, without any public inquiry, is a stepping stone to accepting the larger-scale corruption that has infiltrated the entire political system.
Her resignation, the latest reshuffle proves, was just an exercise in spin, presenting Abela as a man who takes action when evidence shows that could not be further from the truth.
Meanwhile, Julia Farrugia Portelli has also been handed the Ministry for Inclusion and Quality of Life. What used to be just a small part of the job of a parliamentary secretary is now a full-blown ministry – even if its minister has just returned from underwhelming stints at the Tourism Ministry and the Parliamentary Secretariat for Reforms before that.
Abela’s trust in Farrugia Portelli is minimal. Moving Air Malta out of the Tourism Ministry when she was appointed and returning it once she left speaks volumes.
Farrugia Portelli now joins Carmelo Abela in the growing list of Cabinet members whose vague remits satisfy earning a €50,000 per annum salary but none of the work that comes with it.
Putting Caruana and Farrugia Portelli in the cabinet to satisfy a gender or Gozitan quota is not equal, it is patronising.
And what of Edward Zammit Lewis, who is subject to hundreds of as-yet-unreleased messages with Fenech, some of which continued right up until a month before his arrest? Or the many others set to face a reckoning once Fenech’s phone and its contents are submitted to court?
Or Michael Farrugia, who is now onto his fifth Cabinet portfolio in six years, despite his own dodgy planning agreement and the employment of Melvin Theuma in a no-work government job?
It would have been bold and incisive if Abela kept Justyne Caruana out in the cold or better yet removed the many Cabinet members barreling towards controversy. Abela may be forced to remove most of them once new details are revealed in court. He could just be waiting for the courts to force his hand.
The decision to keep them on board despite the potential political backlash that awaits speaks volumes about Abela’s tenure so far. He has been able to institute crucial changes were possible, namely in Malta’s Police Commissioner and Attorney General.
However, he is still far too politically limp to take on larger figures within his administration, particularly those with major links to Muscat and Keith Schembri’s inner clique.
Admittedly, Abela’s job has been a monumental task from the start. Expunging criminal elements from within the very top levels of government would be difficult for some of the best politicians in history. Topping that off with a pandemic that could be devastating to both the economy and public health system has only made that challenge harder.
There has been a merry-go-round of sorts within Abela’s parliamentary group with Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona, and now Edward Scicluna all resigning. It has opened up space in the Cabinet and Abela has done well to bring in new faces to fore, albeit through the help of co-option. Still, there are parts of the proposed changes that still feel more of the same.
That’s not to say that Abela is still not making gains on his opposite number, PN Leader Bernard Grech, whose cringey forays into TikTok are doing nothing to substitute a lack of direction.
Most of the new candidates for the general election, including himself, were brought into the fold by the previous leader Adrian Delia. A shadow cabinet announcement and radical shake-up should be at the top of Grech’s agenda.
For now, kicking off an internal crusade might have just been a stretch too far for Abela, who still has little political clout in the face of seasoned MPs with loyal constituents.
Strong leadership may just have to wait till Abela stamps his authority. Just never forget, Joseph Muscat, Abela’s predecessor, was an expert in spinning positive news to cover-up major problems lurking within his administration. Look where that brought the country.
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