The price of ‘buying the peace’

Abela’s solution therefore comes at a hefty price: both literally - in the sense that a larger Cabinet also means higher expense - but also in terms of having fewer government backbenchers to hold government to account

A Cabinet reshuffle is invariably a risky decision for any Prime Minister to take. Apart from the possibility of internal political fall-out – as evidenced by Silvio Parnis’s aggrieved reaction to losing of his portfolio - there is also a risk that the exercise will be interpreted as an admission of failure, at some level of government administration.

Nonetheless, there are moments when it becomes necessary for a Prime Minister to take those risks. It may be a reaction to popular dissatisfaction with government’s performance; it may be an opportunity to avail of new talent (or put existing talent to more appropriate uses); and it could also be a way for an incoming Prime Minister to assert his own stamp on government’s identity: especially if the role was inherited from a previous administration.

In Prime Minister Robert Abela’s case, the reasons could well be a combination of all three. With the next election at most two years away, Abela will no doubt have been sensitive towards recent poll results that register a noticeable upswing by the Nationalist Party, following the election of a new leader in October.

Even if Bernard Grech’s modest inroads do not correspond to an outright drop in Abela’s own trust-ratings, the Prime Minister must be acutely aware that – with Labour now in power since 2013, and he himself at the helm for almost a year – the novelty of his own leadership victory has, by now, worn off.

By reshuffling Cabinet precisely now, Abela clearly hopes to kill two birds with one stone. With his government showing its first signs of fatigue - made more visible by the failure of some Ministers to rise up to the COVID-19 challenge - Abela is evidently trying to nip certain problems in the bud.

At the same time, the reshuffle may help reverse a perception whereby the Nationalist Party – currently in the process of regeneration - may now be viewed as the more dynamic choice, among voters hoping for change.   

Nonetheless, some of the changes also indicate increasing government sensitivity to popular criticism: including (but not limited) to the environment.

Despite misgivings among the developers’ lobby, Aaron Farrugia has not only retained planning and the environment: but has also taken construction regulations in his wing.

This is significant, as Farrugia has taken noteworthy steps to distance the Planning Authority from the influence of the developers’ lobby: and has also commenced the reform of the PA’s controversial rural policy.

Although, in the absence of new local plans, Farrugia remains powerless to stop the onslaught of rampant over-development, his appointment has certainly tilted the balance away from the pro-development bias of the Muscat administration.

Elsewhere, Former Labour MEP Miriam Dalli also brings her dose of dynamism: taking over from Michael Farrugia as minister for energy, along with enterprise and sustainable development.

In view of her expertise, and commitment to meeting Malta’s Kyoto Protocol targets by 2050, Dalli’s appointment also suggests that the government may finally be taking its international environmental obligations seriously.

On a separate level, however, the changes also reflect dissatisfaction with ministerial performance. By ditching Silvio Parnis from the post of junior minister responsible for the elderly, Robert Abela was clearly reacting to his mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak in homes for the elderly (including his ill-advised offer of a wrapped roly-poly gift: telling the elderly to ‘have courage’, while the death rate was reaching five a day).

But while the dismissal of Parnis - a district heavy weight and veteran, in his own right - does send out a strong message that gross incompetence will not be tolerated, he appears to be the only former Cabinet member to have paid the ultimate precise for his indiscretions.

Elsewhere, Abela limited his interventions to shifting ministerial responsibilities around: not only retaining other under-achieving ministers, but also creating three new ministerial posts to accommodate the ‘new blood’ on his team.

Once again, this betrays the political difficulties such exercises represent: especially in a political environment as tightly polarised as Malta’s.

In order to avoid resentment at constituency level - which could rebound on Labour’s electoral numbers – Abela’s game of musical chairs has also increasing the size of Malta’s Cabinet, to the point that it is now the largest in Europe.

Abela’s solution therefore comes at a hefty price: both literally - in the sense that a larger Cabinet also means higher expense - but also in terms of having fewer government backbenchers to hold government to account.

Such, however, is the price of ‘buying the peace’.