[ANALYSIS] Delia’s reshuffle produces truce during pandemic

In the middle of a pandemic, a magnanimous (or weakened) Adrian Delia appointed a shadow cabinet that has promoted some of his most vocal critics to key positions in justice, home affairs and good governance in a bid to restore party unity. But how does the shadow cabinet compare with the actual cabinet?

Critics of the leader: Karol Aquilina, David Thake, and Jason Azzopardi
Critics of the leader: Karol Aquilina, David Thake, and Jason Azzopardi

The most notable change in Adrian Delia’s shadow cabinet is the elevation of Claudio Grech, a prudent internal critic, as the party’s spokesperson on the economy, filling a major void in the party’s policy-making machine but also cementing the role of one who could very well be a potential successor after a probable defeat in the next general election.

But the most striking change was Delia’s decision to relinquish the justice portfolio and awarding it to his most vocal critic in the parliamentary group, Jason Azzopardi, the lawyer of the Daphne Caruana Galizia family.

Other prominent critics placed in strategic posts were rewarded too, giving Karol Aquilina the good governance portfolio and newcomer David Thake the environment portfolio.

Significantly Delia has now delegated home affairs, justice and good governance to his internal critics who are associated with anti-corruption movements like Repubblika.

Delia may have succeeded in keeping everybody on board even if past experience suggests the truce between rival factions may be temporary, especially if the party fails to make any inroads after the COVID-19 crisis.

Moreover, the majority of Delia’s appointees will struggle to outsmart Labour’s more seasoned cabinet.

The main clashes

Economy: Claudio Grech vs Silvio Schembri

This may prove to be an interesting challenge between one of Labour’s upstarts and a potential PN furture leader. Grech will surely boost the party’s credentials on economic policy and he may well outsmart Schembri in terms of political gravitas and nuance.

Grech is himself a pioneer of e-government under the Gonzi administration and has enough knowledge and experience in the digital economy sector in which Schembri also excels.

But much depends on how much time and energy Grech will be investing in his new role. For in his previous role as social policy spokesperson Grech failed to leave a mark.

Moreover the PN’s appeal also depend on whether the romance between Labour and business will outlast the COVID-19 crisis and on how far the PN will embark on appeasing business at the detriment of other sectors.

Finance: Mario De Marco vs Edward Scicluna

Mario De Marco, another not-so-vocal internal critic, has retained the finance portfolio, a post he has held since Delia was elected party leader. De Marco, a lawyer by profession and a former tourism minister, remains a steady hand but does not have the same experience and gravitas of Edward Scicluna in the financial matters.

Social policy: David Agius vs Michael Falzon

Deputy leader David Agius has been a loyal stalwart for Delia and has now taken Claudio Grech’s role in social policy, an area which will probably grow in importance after the COVID-19 crisis.

But it remains to be seen whether Agius can come up with bold and innovative ideas to make poverty history and be in a position to challenge the reliable but not so imaginative Falzon.

Probably the clash between the two politicians may well result in a boring but respectful stalemate.

Justice: Jason Azzopardi/Karol Aquilina vs Edward Zammit Lewis

This may well be the most unpredictable appointment made by Delia who previously kept the justice portfolio in his hands. Azzopardi’s stamina and perseverance ensure that the party will be at the forefront on justice matters and Azzopardi will surely keep Zammit Lewis on his toes.

But Azzopardi’s habit of shooting from the hip on social media and his conflicted loyalties between the party and groups like Repubblika, may backfire on the whole party.

The confrontation between Zammit Lewis, a personal friend of the Muscats, and Azzopardi, a lawyer of the Caruana Galizia family, may turn nasty.

But by accepting such a sensitive portfolio, Azzopardi has implicitly given his consent to Delia’s leadership. For it would be untenable for Azzopardi to now turn against Delia.

Significantly Zammit Lewis will also be confronted on good governance by Karol Aquilina, a political heavyweight also known for his ties with Repubblika and his opposition to Delia.

This means that Delia has entrusted justice and good governance to two of his most energetic but potentially disloyal MPs, perhaps in a bid to keep them in check while giving them a free hand in attacking government on their favourite topics.

This also makes agreement with government on these issues more unlikely.

Significantly Aquilina will be taking a sector which had been entrusted to Simon Busuttil before the latter was removed in the Egrant inquiry.

Environment: David Thake/Kevin Cutajar vs Aaron Farrugia

Although the environment remains one of the government’s Achilles’ heels, Aaron Farrugia is coming across as well-meaning and determined to restore his party’s credentials on a sector which is rising in the priorities of the Maltese.

But surprisingly, while Robert Abela has merged the environment and planning under one capable minister, Delia has not only split the two inter-related topics, but appointed two inexperienced backbenchers, one of which (Thake) is best known for his divisive antics. Cutajar, known for his organizational skills and hard work, may come across as a welcome surprise in the planning sector.

Still this was largely a failed opportunity for the PN to appoint a solid stalwart on a crucial sector.   

Foreign Affairs: Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici vs Evarist Bartolo

The clash between the two elder statesmen and party ideologues will probably be devoid of the contrasts which attract public attention.

While Bartolo has been entrusted with the difficult task of restoring Malta’s reputation in the European Union tarnished by the involvement of key Muscat allies in the Caruana Galizia murder probe, shadowing him may prove to a pretty boring task entrusted in the hands of a reliable and moderate Delia loyalist.

Tourism: Robert Arrigo vs Julia Farrugia Portelli

Arrigo has the advantage of direct experience in the sector, being himself a hotelier even if this may be perceived as a conflict of interest.

On the other hand Farrugia Portelli may be working outside her comfort zone, even if her work ethic and communication skills makes her a hard nut to crack.

Health: Stephen Spiteri vs Chris Fearne

Stephen Spiteri, a popular Delia loyalist retained in the same portfolio as before, comes across as one of the most affable and conciliatory Nationalist MPs, but he clearly lacks Fearne’s political gravitas and political nuance.

Energy and Water: Ryan Callus vs Michael Farrugia

Ryan Callus, an engineer by profession, has now been given a more strategic role in shadowing energy minister Michael Farrugia, a medical doctor with little experience in the sector.

This may be considered a promotion for Callus who previously shadowed the government on youths, sports and obesity and an opportunity for the party to reclaim lost ground in a sector where the government’s hands are clipped by contractual obligations towards Electrogas and the Chinese government. Although critical of Delia, Callus refused to support attempts to remove the party leader.

Home Affairs: Beppe Fenech Adami vs Byron Camilleri

Fenech Adami, another hawkish internal critic, has retained the home affairs portfolio where he will be shadowing Byron Camilleri, who despite being new to the task has shown greater vitality than his predecessor Michael Farrugia.

Fenech Adami, who carries a degree of gravitas, will probably sustain the pressure on government to deliver in this sector.

Notably home affairs together with justice and good governance are all being shadowed by three critics of Delia, perceived as being close to anti-corruption groups like Repubblika.

Self employed/Small Business: Edwin Vassallo/Kirsty Debono vs Silvio Schembri

Curiously the PN has a spokesperson for the self-employed (Edwin Vassallo) and another for small businesses (Kirstry Debono).

While Vassallo has also retained the agriculture portfolio, Debono also shadows Schembri on investments. Both Vassallo and Debono are considered Delia loyalists.

But the party’s attempts to make inroads in the business sector depends on whether Vassallo and Debono will work closely with Claudio Grech.

Vassallo’s Facebook gaffes and ultra-conservative outbursts may also diminish his political standing especially when confronting the media savvy Schembri.

Debono’s internal standing had received a blow due to her presence in a meeting attended by Yorgen Fenech in which the party had asked for a venue for a conference.

But if the party’s spokespersons on economic and business issues manage to convey innovative solutions, while still making a populist pitch, it may well make inroads amidst post-corona discontentment.   

Housing: Ivan Bartolo vs Roderick Galdes

Former Mosta mayor Ivan Bartolo may not be lacking in social consciousness but the party needs to gets its act in order to find concrete solutions to a housing problem which the government has started to tackle by regulating rent contracts and initiating housing projects after a long lapse.

By elevating Galdes to minister, Abela has indicated that housing will be a greater priority for this government than the previous one led by Muscat. But much depends on the availability of funds in the post COVID 19 period.

Jobs and Education: Clyde Puli vs Owen Bonnici

Clyde Puli has an advantage of having already shadowed the more seasoned Evarist Bartolo while Bonnici may still be orienting himself.

But over the past years Puli has failed in making a mark in the sector, while Bonnici will rely on the same experts and officials which have spearheaded reforms in past years.

The employment portfolio may increase in its importance in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. But this once again requires a strong collaboration with other spokesperson like Claudio Grech.

Gozo: Clint Camilleri vs Chris Said

In this case, Chris Said, a seasoned politician with past ministerial experience, finds himself facing a younger Labour upstart who was elevated to the Gozo ministry by Abela after the resignation of Justyne Caruana.

Interestingly both politicians grew in political stature while serving as mayor in Nadur and Qala respectively. Said’s longer experience and gravitas give him an advantage over the younger Camilleri, an appeaser of the hunting lobby.