One big deal – or is it just a reshuffle?

Muscat's big mistake was to announce a reshuffle some three weeks before he planned to do it, creating unnecessary uncertainty in a number of ministries.

Appointing Konrad Mizzi as health (and energy) minister means the prime minister is more than convinced that the problems in health are management problems that cannot be solved without overriding some of the medical profession’s vested interests.  Mizzi
Appointing Konrad Mizzi as health (and energy) minister means the prime minister is more than convinced that the problems in health are management problems that cannot be solved without overriding some of the medical profession’s vested interests. Mizzi

The media has been trying to blow up the reshuffle story, probably because there is always a dearth of news towards the end of Lent, just before Easter.

The appointment of Cabinet and its reshuffling is the Prime Minister’s prerogative and he can do it whenever he deems fit and whenever he reckons it would be to his political advantage. I am not impressed with criticism to the effect that Muscat’s first Cabinet was only one year old and Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries should have been given more time to prove their worth. One year is one fifth of an administration’s lifetime and I think it is enough for the Prime Minister to be able to assess which way the wind is blowing in the various portfolios he had designated.

Joseph Muscat had more than one problem to face with regards to his Cabinet set-up. Not just the fact that he chose one of his Ministers – Marie Loiuse Coleiro Preca – to be the Republic’s ninth President, thus creating a vacancy that he had to fill somehow or other. He had people who were performing admirably and needed encouragement to keep at it, such as Owen Bonnici, and one Parliamentary Secretary who seems to have regretted foregoing his professional practice for a political post from day one – Franco Mercieca.

One year is one-fifth of an administration’s lifetime and I think it is enough for the Prime Minister to be able to assess which way the wind is blowing

The Prime Minister decided it was the time to do it and he did it. His big mistake was to announce that he had decided to reshuffle the Cabinet some three weeks before he planned to do it. This was not on as it created unnecessary uncertainty in a number of Ministries that were practically paralysed until they got to know if the reshuffle would have any bearing on their way of doing things. Again, this was a mistake that resulted from Muscat’s inexperience and I am sure that he has now learnt the lesson.

Things became urgent when Labour MP Marlene Farrugia, the intrepid partner of former Minister of Health Godfrey Farrugia, spilt the beans by publishing her partner’s letter of resignation on Facebook last Saturday. The PM, who had intended to announce the reshuffle on Tuesday, had to announce the reshuffle that same day. He had no other option.

A change of the minister responsible for health had been on the cards for some time. Godfrey Farrugia is a well-meaning, successful and popular village general practitioner, but that does not mean he was prepared for the tsunami that he found in the health sector on taking office. He came across as acting as if he thought that having a go at micro-managing Mater Dei would solve the problems – a naïve assessment at best.

Having a doctor as Minister of Health does not help: he or she would be constantly faced with divided loyalties: having to choose between the interests of his profession and the interest of the state and the common good.

The Opposition, who is now shedding crocodile tears for him, tore into his way of doing things almost from day one, as it soon became obvious that he had no plan to solve the hospital overcrowding and other problems about which Labour in Opposition had made so much fuss. What was good for the gander must be good for the goose, of course. Farrugia’s relations with the union representing the nurses went steadily from bad to worse and, I understand, that there were times when the Prime Minister had to intervene to cool things down.

The idea that Godfrey Farrugia was going to be shifted sideways to the ministry vacated by Marie Louise Coleiro Preca had been doing the rounds in the rumour mill ever since Coleiro Preca decided to accept the Prime Minister’s ‘suggestion’ that she becomes President. The big news on Saturday was that Farrugia felt that this was a slight on his performance and he refused to take up another portfolio. This, together with the premature announcement of his decision, upset Joseph Muscat’s applecart, albeit for a few hours.

It has been said that Muscat’s first Cabinet was the one with the shortest life in recent Maltese political history. This is a half-truth, at best because 12 out of 21 Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries were not moved and Owen Bonnici’s upgrading from Parliamentary Secretary to Minister still left him responsible for Justice.

In 1983, some eighteen months after his ‘winning’ an election via the notorious perverse result of December 1981, Prime Minister Mintoff surprised everyone by announcing a reshuffle that, among other moves, sent Lorry Sant back to the Works Ministry after a short time as Minister for the Interior and moved Lino Spiteri to Trade after a similarly brief spell as Finance Minister. Then these moves were much more difficult to explain than is the case now. Indeed, the real motives behind that particular reshuffle remain shrouded in mystery.

The real big surprise was Minister Konrad Mizzi being given the responsibility for Health on top of his initial portfolio. I have no doubt that, by now, the Prime Minister is more than convinced that the problems within the Health sector are management problems that cannot be solved without overriding some of the medical profession’s vested interests.

This is no small challenge and no Prime Minister – from Mintoff to Gonzi – has managed to overcome this hurdle. Having a doctor as Minister of Health does not help: he or she would be constantly faced with divided loyalties: having to choose between the interests of his profession and the interest of the state and the common good.

This is no reflection on the high professional level of medical care in this country, a level that should make this small country proud. But the truth is that the interests of the doctors and the efficiency of the health service do not always coincide and experience has shown that when such conflicts arise, it has always been the efficiency of the health service that had to bear the brunt. To this one must also add the interest of the nurses’ union that has become more militant over the years.

Opting for Konrad Mizzi to be responsible for Health with a consultant as Parliamentary Secretary is Muscat’s surprising way of attempting to solve this conundrum. Frankly, I think it is an audacious gamble; if it succeeds, Joseph Muscat’s administration would have pulled a big one – big enough for many people to be tempted to forgive the stupid mistakes and the indiscriminate handing out of jobs to party boys and girls for which his administration has now become synonymous.

Mizzi has a background in management and he will undoubtedly understand the real causes of the problems in the Health sector. Even so, he will find working out a plan for the necessary reform – and seeing it through – to be a great challenge, probably the greatest challenge he has had to face in his life.

The outline of Mizzi’s plan for the revamp of Enemalta was prepared when Labour was still in Opposition and when he became Minister he already knew what the problems were and immediately embarked on a course that he had already decided upon. In the case of his responsibilities for the health sector, the situation is different as he has to start from scratch. John Dalli’s report does indicate where these problems are, but I get the feeling that Konrad Mizzi will prefer first going through the existing situation with a fine tooth comb, rather than designing a management restructuring plan based solely on the Dalli report.

This is the real important change in Muscat’s reshuffle. No other feathers have, in fact, been really ruffled and otherwise the reshuffle is no big deal.

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