Eight things the reshuffle says about Abela’s frame of mind

A much-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle left only one casualty, with the PM shifting responsibilities and creating a new nomenclature with new portfolios to fit those filling them. What was on Robert Abela’s mind when making these changes? asks James Debono

With the exception of COVID-19 casualty Silvio Parnis, Robert Abela did not want to dump anyone

As widely expected, Abela ditched Silvio Parnis as junior minister for the elderly, whose reaction to a spike in COVID-19s death was a wrapped roly-poly gift telling the elderly to “have courage”. While Abela played musical chairs by shifting a number of responsibilities and creating completely new ministries, he retained everyone else in his original Cabinet, in a decision probably motivated by resentment at constituency level which could rebound on Labour’s electoral numbers. This suggests that Abela intends to go to the next election with this Cabinet in place. Yet the dismissal of Parnis, a district heavyweight and veteran in his own right, still sends a strong message that gross incompetence will not be tolerated. Buying the peace of the rest of the Cabinet comes at a price: an absurdly large Cabinet and too few backbenchers to hold government into account.

Justyne Caruana’s reinstatement and the retention of Edward Zammit Lewis and Rosianne Cutajar suggests Abela has lowered the ethical bar he applied so mercilessly when Caruana was removed in January

Just days after his appointment as PM and still on his political honeymoon, a time when he was keen on distancing himself from the impunity characterising the Muscat administration, Abela was quick to dismiss Justyne Caruana from Gozo Minister – not because of any fault of her own – over her husband’s (formerly a high ranking police officer involved in the Caruana Galizia murder probe) close relationship to Yorgen Fenech.

Caruana’s reinstatement, which could also reflect a change in her personal situation, indicates that Abela is now more flexible in the application of his ethical yardstick. The retention of Edward Zammit Lewis and Rosianne Cutajar in their respective justice and equality portfolios, despite having allegedly retained personal relations with Yorgen Fenech after it emerged that the Tumas magnate was also the owner of 17 Black, is hard to interpret because the WhatsApp chats spurring these rumours have not been made public yet. This may be an indication that Abela has been satisfied by the explanation given to him by the two MPs and has concluded that the cost of removing them would be greater than that of retaining them.

It is unclear whether Abela has pre-empted problems by demanding full disclosure from those involved or whether he is still waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Their retention has surely strengthened the case for the reinstatement of Justyne Cutajar, considering that the latter was not even personally connected to Yorgen Fenech when she was removed. The downside for Abela, whose credibility has been greatly enhanced by raising the ethical bar principally by kicking Konrad Mizzi out of the parliamentary group, is that his latest decisions may be perceived as a backtracking from his stricter approach.

Yet it is also possible that such an approach was not sustainable in the long run, in a political landscape where even the Opposition’s chief inquisitor Jason Azzopardi has been rebuked by his own party for taking a gift from Tumas Group, albeit one occurring before the 17 Black revelations.

Gozo remains electorally strategic: three Gozitan MPs are now ministers

Gozo is Malta’s only toss-up district. With the latest polls showing the PN led by Bernard Grech making notable gains, Abela may have been keener on reinstating Caruana who commands strong constituency support in Gozo. Neither can Abela afford to lose support in Gozo with its district rivalries and the resentment of MPs like Caruana. She now joins Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri, who is also responsible for hunting, and Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo in the strongest ever Gozitan contingent in a Maltese government. Caruana’s conciliatory temperament is also suited for her new role as education minister, a portfolio which gives her visibility, exposure and plenty of deliverables. It remains to be seen whether she also has the depth to address structural inequalities in a system which has traditionally reinforced class divisions.

Robert Abela still has a pool of talent, which allowed him to shift responsibilities

Abela is reaping the fruits of the generational renewal on Labour’s benches during the past decade, finding plenty of space to manoeuvre in shifting responsibilities in his Cabinet. While the government is showing the first signs of fatigue made more visible by the failure of some ministers to rise up to the COVID-19 challenge, Abela is trying to nip problems in the bud by shifting responsibilities and giving embattled ministers a second chance to prove themselves in greener pastures.

Strong social aspect: Disability and the elderly have their own ministries along with social housing

Following the appointment of Roderick Galdes as housing minister in January, Abela has now elevated inclusion and disability (included in Julia Farrugia’s quality of life portfolio) and the elderly (now the main focus of Michael Farrugia’s ministry) to ministerial status. This is a strong indication that Abela is giving more importance to the social sector than Muscat. Yet Abela missed a golden opportunity to elevate equality to a separate ministry, thus enhancing the present’s government commitment on themes like the gender pay gap and its drive against discrimination in the provision of services through the proposed equality bill.

Aaron Farrugia’s environmental portfolio has been strengthened with the addition of construction

Despite misgivings among the developers’ lobby, Aaron Farrugia has not only retained planning and the environment but has also taken construction regulations under his wing. Over the past year Farrugia has reshuffled planning boards removing controversial figures like Elizabeth Ellul, and has commenced the reform of the PA’s controversial rural policy.

Although in the absence of new local plans Farrugia is powerless to stop the onslaught of development which is still wrecking our towns and villages, his appointment has tilted the balance away from the pro development bias of the Muscat administration.

Julia Farrugia and Owen Bonnici have been given a second chance to prove themselves in new ministries

Both Farrugia-Portelli and Bonnici have been removed from high-profile and strategic ministries (Tourism and Education) and given responsibility over important but not easily identifiable sectors, namely quality of life now in the hands of Farrugia-Portelli, and the post COVID-19 strategy now in the hands of Bonnici. One may easily interpret this move as a demotion, in the case of Bonnici for his bungled handling of the re-opening of schools and in Farrugia’s case for permits for hotel parties held in July which were partly responsible for a spike in cases.

Bonnici has redeemed himself by the absence of any child-to-child COVID-19 transmission, but delays in the transition and disagreements with teachers’ unions had created uncertainty. On her part Farrugia-Portelli’s linguistic slips, turned into memes by merciless critics, did not help in alleviating public anxieties even if she was implementing what was essentially a collective decision.

Being more in line with Farrugia-Portelli’s sensitivities and social consciousness, the quality of life and inclusion portfolios could prove a rebound for the hard-working minister, who will probably feel more at home addressing social issues than dealing with the fat cats in the tourism industry.

Bonnici’s post COVID-19 strategy portfolio may actually represent an even greater challenge and much depends on his ability to coordinate strategies involving different ministries. The elevation of research and innovation to a separate ministry is positive but depends on how much funds are allocated in this sector.

Clayton Bartolo, who as the government’s representative on the PA board had voted for the DB’s city centre in Pembroke, will now have to prove his independence from a powerful lobby in reshaping post COVID-19 tourism at a time when sustainability and quality of life have become government buzz words.

Abela is banking on Miriam Dalli and Clyde Caruana giving new impetus to the government

Abela’s cabinet has lost the gravitas of Finance Minister Edward Scicluna but may have gained the greater dynamism of Clyde Caruana, an unassuming technocrat who will also be taking over employment. Caruana, who as the main architect of Labour’s employment policies, opened up the labour market to foreign workers, suggests that despite his ‘full up’ rants, Abela has endorsed the economic model of his predecessor which depends on the importation of foreign workers.

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

It remains to be seen how Dalli’s sustainable development portfolio will relate to the quality of life one under Julia Farrugia. It would be a great disservice if this nomenclature were simply intended to embellish ministerial nomenclature.

In the energy sector, one of the main challenges for Dalli will be preparing for the expiry of the five-year fixed price agreement for the buying of LNG from Electrogas in 2022. Moreover, increased scrutiny over Electrogas will also test the new minister’s good governance credentials.

Dalli’s green credentials will also be tested in her commitment for renewable energy strengthened by her European credentials in pushing for cleaner energy in transport at continental level.

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