Joseph’s Cabinet blues

It is obvious that the euphoria of Labour’s historic electoral victory is over and Joseph Muscat’s ministers have been re-dimensioned by the man in the street

Some time after Joseph Muscat announced his first Cabinet following his landslide electoral victory in March 2013, an acquaintance of mine who is involved in the Nationalist Party made a somewhat inconvenient comparison with the way Muscat and Lawrence Gonzi had chosen to form their cabinets.

My acquaintance was actually admiring – although somewhat grudgingly – the way Muscat had done it: he was not directly responsible for anything specific and his job was simply to monitor and check what each minister and parliamentary secretary was doing, correcting anyone who strays from his predetermined path along his famous roadmap.

My acquaintance compared this with Lawrence Gonzi’s short-sighted micromanagement style: his direct involvement in the negotiations of the contract with Skanska to finish Mater Dei Hospital or his decision to head a task force to oversee public transport reform.

Both decisions assumed that there was no one in Malta, except for the Prime Minister, capable of personally overseeing these undertakings and see them through and that the Prime Minister had enough time on his hands to be able to do this overseeing personally. This was a hopelessly absurd assumption and in time Gonzi found out that what he had lost on the swings was much more than what he had gained on the roundabouts.

According to my acquaintance, Muscat’s way of choosing and forming his first Cabinet showed that he was keen to avoid the trap into which Lawrence Gonzi had fallen. From a management perspective, Muscat’s way of doing things was intended to produce better overall results.

Since Muscat became Prime Minister, in fact, there were a number of occasions when he had to intervene and ‘correct’ ministerial decisions. He managed to do this without interfering too much in the individual thrust that his ministers apply to their job.

It is now more than 18 months since Muscat chose his first Cabinet – a Cabinet that he had to tweak slightly after a few weeks when he raised Owen Bonnici’s status to a minister rather than a parliamentary secretary in Manuel Mallia’s ministry and then tweaked it to an even further extent when Marie Louise Coleiro-Preca, Karmenu Vella and Godfrey Farrugia left the Cabinet for various and disparate reasons. 

Has Muscat’s way of doing things been a success? The reply to this question, alas, depends on the qualities of the ministers he chose. A recent MaltaToday survey has revealed that many ministers have been losing their initial popularity. Transport Minister Joe Mizzi has hit rock bottom, dropping from a solid approval rate of 52% in February to just 25%.

Sharp drops were also registered by Energy and Health Minister Konrad Mizzi (minus 13 points), Environment Minister Leo Brincat (minus 12 points), Finance Minister Edward Scicluna (minus 11 points), Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech (minus 10 points) and Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia (minus nine points).

It is obvious that the euphoria of Labour’s historic electoral victory is over and Joseph Muscat’s ministers have been re-dimensioned by the man in the street. Many have been found wanting: some have become noted for doing nothing; some for failing to deliver according to their own pre-set deadlines; some for refusing to answer legitimate parliamentary questions; and others for wading straight into a mess of their own making. Moreover, in some cases, the perception of arrogance has already started to raise its ugly head.

The incident in parliament, the other week, when Minister Evarist Bartolo openly disagreed with his Cabinet colleague, Minister for Gozo Anton Refalo, about the right of the Opposition to seek information on the cost of ministerial travel has uncovered the cracks in Joseph Muscat’s edifice. They may not be considered as very serious at this point in time, but Joseph Muscat must be aware that he needs to carry out an urgent maintenance and rehabilitation job if he wants to avoid the total collapse of the house that he so painstakingly built.

The MaltaToday poll also shows that, in contrast with many of his ministers, Joseph Muscat still enjoys a healthy dose of popularity and is far ahead of Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, with a strong 14-point lead in the so-called trust barometer between the two leaders.

Talk of a Cabinet reshuffle being on the cards is therefore not as wild as it may at first seem. Louis Galea’s term as Malta’s representative on the European Court of Auditors will end early next year and this could well be an opportunity for Joseph Muscat to kick upstairs yet another Cabinet member, a move that would give him the opportunity to carry out a Cabinet reshuffle that would be more substantial than the last one. 

This is the sort of situation that gives rise to speculative stories in the press. The other week ‘The Malta Independent on Sunday’ reported that a Cabinet reshuffle was on the cards. Last Wednesday, the PN daily ‘In-Nazzjon’ gave prominence to a speculative report saying that former Parliamentary Secretary Franco Mercieca wants to become Minister for Gozo, replacing Anton Refalo. This story, of course, says more about the present incumbent’s waning star than about Mercieca’s ambitions.

In this situation, one can expect more speculative stories in the press after the interest in the budget to be announced next week wanes. The lull of the Christmas period is the perfect opportunity for this. Such talk will do Muscat no good and there will be a time when he either has to reshuffle his Cabinet or declare that he has no intention of doing so.

The Opposition will describe any reshuffle as an open admission of failure, but this sort of propaganda would be short-lived if the reshuffle brings about the sort of administrative shake-up that the Prime Minister would want to see.

More to the point, does the actual situation mean that Muscat’s original intentions on the way of running his show are no longer doable? That way of doing things depended on the capabilities of the persons who are given ministerial responsibilities. As is always the case with any Maltese Prime Minster, Muscat is in the predicament of having a limited choice of ministerial candidates while having to ensure that all electoral districts are ‘represented’ in the Cabinet. Many of Muscat’s appointees were untried and untested. Sacking those who did not make the grade is not an easy task, even though Muscat has the luxury of an unprecedented majority in the House of Representatives.

Rather than sitting back and monitoring what his appointees are doing, Muscat may find that he needs to impose himself much more in everyday ministerial decisions.  For him this would probably really be the worst possible scenario – enough to give him the blues!

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