(Not) all in the family

One sincerely hopes this is not the beginning of a whole new way of bungling political decisions.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

The recent unorthodox appointment of a "voluntary" assistant to the Health Minister may in itself provide only limited cause for direct concern.

Nonetheless, the issue also represents arguably the worst way the incoming administration - which had set so much store precisely on the 'impropriety' of so many public appointments by its predecessor - could kick off its claims to usher in an era of greater 'meritocracy'.

On Monday afternoon, journalists were surprised to see two government MPs (only one of whom was the relevant minister) addressing a press conference on behalf of the Health Ministry.

Their bafflement was understandable, as journalists in such situations expect to encounter people who are legally authorized to speak on behalf of a government ministry. Apart from the minister, such persons include communications coordinators and other recognized public officials.

Dr Godfrey Farrugia is the health minister, so no problem there. Dr Marlene Farrugia has no such formal appointment; yet her presence suggested that she felt entitled to speak with authority on ministerial issues... even though there is no such authority invested in her by the State.

That she also happens to be the minister's partner was not very helpful, either. Such an obvious instance of perceived 'nepotism' could only have sent out arguably the least reassuring message imaginable: that under a Labour government, high-ranking government positions can if necessary be 'invented' for the benefit of one's own family members, partners or dependants.

And that is hardly what we were led to expect by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's promise  of 'meritocracy'.

Nor did it help much that we have until now heard two conflicting versions of what actually happened; with Marlene Farrugia claiming that she was offered the role, and the Office of the Prime Minister insisting that she had come up with the idea herself.

Naturally one is tempted to shrug the whole episode off as a minor oversight of little consequence. But this would also be to close an eye at one of the most fundamental concerns of the public service: i.e., the twin issues of transparency and accountability, both of which may conceivably have been compromised in this scenario.

In the traditional set-up, the precise role, functions, responsibilities, remunerations, legal privileges, obligations, etc. of all people employed within any government ministry or department are laid down in considerable detail by the legal instruments which both define and mandate those roles.

One can always agree or disagree with the specifics of each particular role. For instance, former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi had argued that a new position called 'parliamentary assistant' was needed to help with ministers' workloads - though critics responded that he was more concerned with accommodated troublesome MPs who could not otherwise be roped into the mechanics of government.

Either way, however, the creation of formally structured position was necessary, so as to avoid raising uncomfortable questions.

Questions such as: how does one justify a government salary, when one's workload is not clearly defined? Who assumes political responsibility for the performance of that ministry - the minister, or his 'assistant'? What are the contractual obligations of the person occupying the newly formed role?

These are important questions, because without any clear answer the same role can easily be treated as a convenient scapegoat for anything that might go wrong. And if its function is not clearly defined, the same role can easily disrupt the ordinary functions of the office - just think of a unofficially appointed 'official' taking liberties with the workings of a particular project, only to afterwards disavow responsibility (after all, without any legal definition the role does not technically 'exist').

For these reasons alone, one cannot really accept that a government minister simply adopts its own purely ad hoc approach as to how his or her ministry actually functions.

Besides: Marlene Farrugia's clumsy annexation of a part of her partner's ministerial portfolio was a mistake for another reason also. It simply disregarded all norms of protocol and propriety in the way such decisions are traditionally taken.

And while this consideration may seem a mere trifle to the man in the street, the fact of the matter is that the Labour Party has in the past suffered enormously from a reputation for churlishness in precisely such matters.

It was past Socialist warhorses like Dom Mintoff who enjoyed taking liberties with the formalities of 'protocol' - often just to irk and exasperate his antagonists - and while Labour values its memories of the man who built so much of that party's identity, he remains part of a troubled legacy that Muscat had correctly identified as a stumbling block to Labour's re-election chances.

And yet, almost immediately after convincing literally tens of thousands of voters that the PL had 'changed' since those times... in its first weeks at the helm the new Labour government somehow managed to live up to the very stereotype its detractors so often like to remind us of: the sloppy, amateurish party that simply can't be trusted to get even the basics right.

One sincerely hopes this was only a technical glitch that will not be repeated... and not the beginning of a whole new way of bungling political decisions, that will later have to be rectified at every step of the way.

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I would put it down to Marlene's characteristic exuberance; and nothing else. No sense in reading volumes in footnotes!