Malta’s Cabinet is bracing itself for a reshuffle, the first under Robert Abela’s tenure and the first since the COVID-19 outbreak. And while the Prime Minister himself has played down these reports, only saying a reshuffle will happen “when and if it needs to happen”, there’s a clear sense of expectation in the air and Labour MPs are on tenterhooks as they try to figure out what Abela is planning.
Predictably, the rumour mill has been in overdrive and these are some key potential changes to look out for when Abela announces his new Cabinet.
1. A new ministry for Miriam Dalli
Considered one of the Labour Party’s rising stars, Miriam Dalli recently gave up her prestigious seat at the European Parliament for a chair at the Maltese Parliament.
It’s extremely unlikely that she’d have left Brussels only to become an MP and a Cabinet position is a near-certainty, particularly after Abela said he wants to preside over the most female-represented Cabinet in modern history.
Dalli has been widely tipped to be assigned a portfolio related to climate change, not the Environment Ministry but an entirely new ministry which will be tasked with implementing Malta’s strategy to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
This ministry could take climate change from the Environment Ministry, green transport from the Transport Ministry, green industrial policy from the Economy Ministry and perhaps even green energy from the Energy Ministry. It will signal a major commitment from Malta to combat climate change, with one minister solely responsible for it, rather than it being an afterthought in the portfolios of other ministers.
2. A new finance minister
Edward Scicluna has led the Finance Ministry ever since the Labour Party came to power in 2013 but he is facing pressure for inaction on government corruption in light of a crucial Moneyval review which could see Malta grey-listed.
Scicluna has already pledged not to contest the next election, forcing Abela to think of alternatives.
Clyde Caruana is the clear favourite for this role. An economist by trade and the Prime Minister’s current chief of staff, Caruana was recently co-opted to Parliament despite not having contested an election in recent years, a clear sign that Abela wants him to occupy one of the top jobs in Cabinet.
Caruana is also being tipped to become Minister for Employment, a portfolio which has been part of the Education Ministry for several years but which is well up the new MP’s street, having led the national employment agency JobsPlus for a number of years.
A new parliamentary secretary for employment could also be appointed to assist him in this regard.
3. Who will take charge of energy?
One of the most sensitive ministries in recent years, Abela could be tempted to shake things up, particularly with the incumbent minister Michael Farrugia under the microscope for his links to murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.
Cabinet sources have indicated that the Prime Minister could turn to Aaron Farrugia, who is already in charge of the environment and planning but who looks set to lose climate change to Miriam Dalli.
4. Who will take charge of tourism?
Tourism is a key pillar of Malta’s economy but it has never been in a more desperate state. The industry’s eyes will be on Abela to see whether he sticks with Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli, who has been tainted by a BBC interview promoting Malta as a post-COVID-19 destination, or whether he will search elsewhere.
An obvious alternative would be Economy Minister Silvio Schembri, who has already been given responsibility of Air Malta despite the national airline traditionally forming part of the Tourism Minister’s responsibilities.
If Miriam Dalli’s ministry takes green industry away from the Economy Ministry, that would leave some space for Schembri to take on new responsibilities.
5. Who will take charge of culture?
Just like tourism, COVID-19 has dealt a hammer blow to Malta’s culture sector and the industry is screaming out for a minister with the passion to drive its interests home.
Several artists have been left frustrated with the lack of state attention given to them throughout the pandemic, and Abela could well be tempted to replace Culture Minister Jose Herrera.
Cabinet sources have indicated that responsibility for culture could go to Education Minister Owen Bonnici, who has experience in charge of the sector and who will have space in his portfolio once employment moves to the Finance Ministry.
6. Who will take charge of reforms and equality?
Since becoming Parliamentary Secretary for Equality and Reforms ten months ago, Rosianne Cutajar has taken a strong stance in favour of legalising cannabis for personal use, has come out against the criminalisation of sex clients and has even spoken relatively openly about abortion.
Abela isn’t as progressive in his policies as his predecessor Joseph Muscat and his decision with regards Cutajar could well show the country which side of the fence he’s on.
Cabinet sources have indicated that Abela could seek to move Cutajar to another ministry, perhaps as parliamentary secretary for employment, and replace her with Julia Farrugia Portelli, who used to occupy that position between 2017 and 2020.
7. Who will be Justice Minister?
Edward Zammit Lewis has spearheaded a raft of constitutional reforms but his role as Justice Minister could well be deemed to be in conflict with the friendship he shared with Yorgen Fenech.
Times of Malta has reported that Zammit Lewis and Fenech exchanged around 700 WhatsApp messages between January and October 2019, after the businessman was revealed to be the owner of 17 Black, and that this information could be presented in court in the near future.
Abela has already removed Justyne Caruana from his Cabinet when it was revealed that her husband, former deputy police commissioner Silvio Valletta, had travelled with Fenech to watch a football match. Unless he gives Zammit Lewis the same treatment, he will have to explain why.
If he opts to remove Zammit Lewis, there will be no shortage of lawyer MPs to replace him, but sources have indicated that Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi is the favourite. Another MP, perhaps Ian Castaldi Paris, will then be promoted to replace Zrinzo Azzopardi as Parliamentary Secretary for EU funds.
8. Will Justyne Caruana return to Cabinet?
Abela has largely kept his lips sealed about his reshuffle plans, but he gave a few hints last Sunday when he said he wants his Cabinet to be the youngest, most female-represented and most talented in Malta’s modern history.
“This is still the beginning of our work – this government is different than what we had in January, and we’ve shown that we are open to all changes that make us better than we were,” the Prime Minister said last Sunday.
Change is healthy but it can also be difficult and Abela, who has had a rough start to life as Prime Minister, now has some more tough choices to make…