A technocrat in the Cabinet

Clyde Caruana has a technocratic mind, and apparently not interested in the political tit-for-tat that means nothing in the long run

Fiance Minister Clyde Caruana
Fiance Minister Clyde Caruana

The need for changing the way people are picked to become ministers has long been felt. In many countries, ministers are not politicians who go from door to door shaking the hands of citizens in an effort to be elected, while in Malta only politicians who are elected members of the House of Representatives can be appointed ministers.

Recently, the Prime Minister himself referred to the idea of unelected technocrats in the Cabinet when addressing the Youth Parliament a week or so ago. He is right of course, even if he is at the same time responsible for refraining from appointing real technocrats in the case of several heads of so-called ‘autonomous’ authorities when nothing hindered him from doing so.

While systems vary from country to country, most European prime ministers, in fact, have the option to nominate technocrats – not politicians – as members of their Cabinet. In the UK, Parliament includes both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and the Prime Minister can pick a technocrat minister by appointing him or her a member of the House of Lords… and hey presto the new MP is qualified to become a minister.

Besides having a larger pool of competent people from which the prime minister can appoint ministers, such a system would also provide for greater separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of the state and give a potential prime minister time to identify potential ministerial appointees well before the results of parliamentary elections are announced.

In Malta a minister has to balance his time between the responsibilities to the nation and the responsibilities to his voters; with the two not being necessarily compatible. A minister’s job should be mainly that of formulating policies and strategic plans in the sector he is responsible for, attaining Cabinet endorsement for them, and then monitoring what is going on to ensure that these polices are actually implemented or see that they are adjusted, as the case may be. Dealing with the sob stories of constituents – actual or potential voters – can only be a distraction.

Technocrats who never contested an election do not need to act like those who go begging door-to-door for votes during the election campaign – or even all the time. Theoretically, they can ignore the pressure for undeserved handouts (‘pjaċiri’) while concentrating their attention on their responsibilities.

Perhaps, we do now have a technocrat minister without such restraints in the person of Clyde Caruana who was co-opted as MP in November 2020 and subsequently appointed Minister for Finance and Employment. For me, Clyde Caruana is a breath of fresh air, in that he does not speak like a politician tasked with the eternal job of vote-seeking.

He was not afraid of criticising his fellow Labour ministers and employees who have overloaded the state coffers with the obligation of paying wages to unnecessary employees until they are pensioned off. He is not afraid to say that there is no solution to the problem of increases in the price of imported commodities – a decades-old Labour mantra. This does not exclude measures of a social and economic nature that help decrease the effects of cost-of-living increases on the lives of the lower-income groups.

Earlier this week, Clyde Caruana launched his employment policy for the next eight years; emphasising the need to improve educational and training outcomes to address skill gaps in the market. In his words: “We have to improve our productivity to reduce demand for more foreign workers, which is one of the policy aims but it is easier said than done because it requires a better-skilled Maltese workforce. This is why the need for importing labour will remain if we are to sustain economic growth levels of recent years.”

He was not afraid to say that our education system is lacking, with Malta having the lowest rates of people who spend time in education across the EU, insisting that the next challenge is to ensure that Maltese workers have better skills to be able to earn better incomes.

The economic and labour market analysis that accompanies the 40 recommendations listed in the report shows how a worker spends an average of 16 years in education in Malta, whereas in Ireland the average stands at 20 years, which means people enter the labour market with a more extensive skill set. Figures show the wide disparity between the income that people with a higher education level receive and earnings of those with low education attainment.

He recognises that the change we need in our education system is one of attitude and just building new schools will not solve anything. Perhaps encouraging young people to keep studying rather than giving them government jobs – consisting of doing nothing -would help.

During his press conference, he was asked by the press several questions that are irrelevant to the policy he launched – questions about tax refunds, the situation in Air Malta and the cost of living. The last question elicited his answer saying that Malta cannot be in a position to counter price increases of imported goods.

The way he fielded those questions reflected his technocratic mind, rather than being more concentrated on the political tit-for-tat that means nothing in the long run.

Merkel’s legacy

After the results of the German elections, the CDU led by Angela Merkel for the past 16 years, will probably be doing a spell in the Opposition. The debate on Angela Merkel’s legacy is now on.

A recent issue of The Economist carried a leader saying that Merkel left behind her big unresolved problems. While her ability of being a ‘consensus-forger’ is recognised, she was depicted as a hesitant politician struggling to take action on the consequences of issues – such as climate change – that she understood so well as a diligent scientist-stateswoman.

In Europe, she was the uncontested leader and whoever will take her place in the EU scene is still to be discovered.

On the other hand, a piece by Ian Bremmer in Time magazine praises Merkel much more. Bremmer states that Merkel strengthened Europe by showing that compromise is possible for the good of all. As Bremmer put it: “Convinced that a strong and cohesive EU would be good for the country, the German Chancellor bridged the gaps and cut the deals that helped Europe’s most deeply indebted nations survive the 2010-2012 sovereign-debt crisis.” She subsequently led Europe in coping with the 2015-2016 Syrian migrant crisis.

I am convinced that much will be written about this great politician and that her legacy will put her in the best light possible.