Time for a reshuffle? | Mark Said

A timely reshuffle can be a preemptive attempt to limit future problems with Cabinet management. It is time for a new minister or two to get a mission statement from the prime minister

Undoubtedly, as primus inter pares, it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to decide if, how, and when to make a Cabinet reshuffle. He is in the best position to evaluate each individual minister’s performance and delivery, identify any shortcomings and lowering of standards, and somehow address them. But this does not mean that we are not entitled to comment on the importance, significance, and timing of a Cabinet reshuffle.

Cabinet reshuffles in Malta are neither common nor rare. Perhaps the one that easily springs to mind was that in November of 2020, when four new ministers were appointed and three others had their ministries changed in a Cabinet reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Robert Abela. In November, two years later, rumours were rife that a reshuffle was envisaged following equally rife rumours that Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne was about to be nominated for the post of European Commissioner. Of course, Abela shot down such rumours outright.

Historically, Cabinet reshuffles have occurred intermittently from 1932 to date. Most of them were forced on the Prime Minister either because of the death of a serving minister, a resignation, or a promotion to another prestigious post. A reshuffle is more likely to occur in cabinets with many ministers. Of course, when serving ministers are reshuffled, no one expects a Prime Minister to explicitly state or admit that the move was necessary because some ministers underperformed, did not perform at all, or were profusely perceived by the public to be corrupt or involved in shady dealings.

Cabinet reshuffles can be quite significant transformations when several cabinet ministers change departments or leave government, and ministerial roles, or even entire departments, are created or removed. Moving ministers around can be a way of indicating a government’s priorities. Adding new ministerial roles or changing which ministers can attend cabinet during a reshuffle is another way of doing this, as is making changes to the responsibilities of government departments.

Reshuffles are a way to avoid appearing stale. Refreshing the government through a reshuffle can be an attractive option when a government is unpopular, as Robert Abela’s seems to be at the moment.

Let’s face it, it has long been a common perception that more than one minister has failed to deliver while others have not performed to expectations. How much longer is our Prime Minister continuing to feel sensible in sticking to his guns and resisting reshuffles so far except when forced upon him? We will see how long that resolve lasts now that the period of government wobble has entered.

A Cabinet reshuffle is rarely, if ever, simply about refreshing the ranks of the government with new and upcoming talent, rewarding outstanding parliamentary performance, and so on. This exalted and high-minded explanation is often given, but, in my view, rarely wholly truthful. I am, however, firmly of the view that ministers should, as a rule, be drawn from the ranks of parliament and from a pool of people with a track record of service and proven skills. I am dubious about the notion that parliament is so lacking in talent that it is necessary to go repeatedly outside it in order to meet the needs of a good government.

The main reason for a reshuffle is to allow the Prime Minister to try to ensure he has the best possible team of ministers. Ideally, it should be about rewarding ability and performance. In reality, other factors come into play, such as the need to balance the government politically and give ‘big beasts’ jobs.

If a minister is left in a job for too long, he or she can become stale unless they have a particular passion and special interest in the policy area they cover. We only have one or two with such a passion and interest.

We live in an environment where ministers expect to be judged on immediate impact rather than longer-term delivery, so it is inevitably harder to sustain necessary policies that have potentially difficult or adverse media consequences in the short term.

A reshuffle is always difficult for any prime minister. Refusing to lose ministers under attack in a way that would probably not have been true in the past also has its difficulties, as the current Prime Minister has experienced. It is a prerogative power of the Prime Minister to recommend to the President the appointment, dismissal, and acceptance of resignations of ministers and to determine the membership of the Cabinet. He is responsible for the overall organisation of the executive and the allocation of functions between ministers in charge of departments.

The Prime Minister is the leader of the government and therefore responsible and accountable to parliament for the appointments he makes. Perhaps the time is ripe now for a reshuffle that could lead to fewer ministers treating their departments as personal fiefdoms and, therefore, to lower departmental spending and the government deficit.

Robert Abela must recognise the need to change incompetent or self-interested ministers in order to regain political control over his government and thus improve its performance. Needless to say, if he is to be presumed a prudent prime minister, he would hold consultations with relevant individuals in order to avoid dissent.

A timely reshuffle can be a preemptive attempt to limit future problems with Cabinet management. It is time for a new minister or two to get a mission statement from the prime minister.

Mark Said is a lawyer