Wanted: A holistic vision

Bartolo seems to be saying that news conferences addressed by more than one minister are nothing but a façade, because the real truth is that after the public show, each minister goes on and does his or her bit alone

I was rather shocked to read the comments made by Minister Evarist Bartolo during a public consultation meeting as reported in ‘The Times’ last Tuesday. The minister referred to what he perceives as a lack of ministerial cohesion, or – to put it in another way – the problem of getting different entities to work together through joint governance.

According to this report Bartolo publicly made this intriguing statement: ‘We’re supposed to have a Cabinet which constitutes one government but, in reality, we have 10 different governments – an education government, a health government, a family government and so on. Inter-ministerial collaboration often ends when a news conference ends.’

It is obvious where Bartolo is coming from. One cannot have a holistic vision for the development of Malta if education, health and family policies are not complementing each other. These three issues overlap in many of their most important aspects and the country can ill afford a situation where the different ministries responsible for these ‘different’ sectors act independently of each other. 

The reference to news conferences is really ominous: Bartolo seems to be saying that news conferences addressed by more than one minister because they relate to issues that concern – directly or indirectly – the portfolio of more than one minister are nothing but a facade; because the real truth is that after the public show, each minister goes on and does his or her bit alone, oblivious of what the other Cabinet colleague is doing!

Lawrence Gonzi acknowledged this sort of problem and tried to tackle it by creating Cabinet sub-committees that grouped ‘overlapping’ ministries together. The idea was a good one, but unfortunately it did not really succeed, probably because of other issues that afflicted the Gonzi administration.

I would have thought that the enthusiasm of a new administration – more so after Labour was so long in the Opposition wilderness – would help avoid the problem that Bartolo felt he had to refer to in public. This sort of thing at this point in time is a worrying state of affairs.

I was shocked not because this sort of thing had never happened before but precisely because this tended to happen to administrations that had peaked, nearer the second half of the second consecutive administration led by the same party, whichever it was. In my opinion this sort of problem does not normally arise at this point – barely two years after the change of administration. 

It is shocking because we are supposed to be in a period when the Cabinet appointed in March 2013 has now found its feet and is working in partnership to achieve the holistic vision that was touted as the government’s roadmap for the future.

To be sure when the vision is realised – even if only partially – administrations start to tire out and the motivation wears out. It is at this point, when ministers start lacking new ideas and stop thinking of new initiatives, that they start to look differently at their responsibility because it would have lost its initial thrill and tend to become just another humdrum job. That is why, in my opinion, no minister should be entrusted with the same portfolio for more than the five year term that an administration is elected to serve.

In this I speak from experience. In 1994 – midway through the second Fenech Adami administration – I was moved from infrastructure to education. Even though people thought otherwise when this happened, my Prime Minister did not decide unilaterally to move me and the decision was actually taken at my request: I had felt that I had reached the end of the pre-ordained ‘roadmap’ and I could not contribute to any new initiative in that particular sector. Just running the daily grind of a ministry without infusing any reforms was not my cup of tea. 

It is only natural that at some time, ministers start looking at their portfolio as their turf and start to forget that they are part of a co-ordinated team. Minister Bartolo’s lament at this stage of the life of Joseph Muscat’s first administration, therefore, speaks volumes. 

It is, of course, the Prime Minister’s job to co-ordinate the various ministries: Cabinet meetings not only decide the government’s course of action in different areas and in different circumstances but should also give the Prime Minister the opportunity to instil a teamwork mentality in the group of ministers he has appointed. 

Is the Prime Minister failing in this task? Is he finding his enormous Cabinet too big to handle? He is, in fact, repeatedly overturning unpopular decisions that were already taken by his ministers. His knack of siding with the prevailing popular sentiment by publicly expressing his disapproval of something that was carried out by the administration for which he is responsible resonates positively with the public. This might be the perfect way of ensuring that Joseph Muscat’s popularity remains undiminished but, at the same time, it undermines the very idea of a compact team resolved to leave its mark in Malta’s political history.

He has done it again this week with his dismissal of the infamous ‘monti’ stalls. Surely someone is responsible for that mess: how come public money was spent to produce 75 open-air market stalls that no politician in power approves of? Is this also the result of lack of co-ordination within the administration, with the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing... and the Prime Minister having to intervene again to reverse a decision that put his government in a messy situation from a public relations point of view? 

Does this administration lack a holistic vision of Malta’s future and is solely concerned with tackling people’s gripes – more so those that were brought to the attention of Labour before the 2013 election when Joseph Muscat reacted by promising to solve all problems without realising that some solutions create new problems and that correcting injustices without being judicious creates new injustices?

Avoiding irking people unnecessarily and reacting to public opinion are two of the positive hallmarks of Joseph Muscat’s administration.

But is this being done at the expense of a holistic vision that considers the paramount importance of the common good rather than simply tending to individual gripes?

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