Abela leaves six former Cabinet members stranded as he boots out controversy, seeks new faces

We explore the possible reasons for Robert Abela’s decision to drop three previous ministers and three parliamentary secretaries from his new Cabinet

From top left clockwise: Deo Debattista, Michael Farrugia, Alex Muscat, Carmelo Abela, Edward Zammit Lewis and Chris Agius
From top left clockwise: Deo Debattista, Michael Farrugia, Alex Muscat, Carmelo Abela, Edward Zammit Lewis and Chris Agius

Edward Zammit Lewis was not given a ministerial portfolio by the Prime Minister in what appears to be an attempt at booting out controversy. 

Zammit Lewis, who was justice minister in the last administration, was outed as having exchanged several WhatsApp messages with murder suspect Yorgen Fenech.

The exchanges happened in 2019 when the link between Fenech and the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia was not yet known publicly.

In one of the messages, Zammit Lewis had described Labour voters as ‘Ġaħan’. He subsequently apologised for the derogatory comment but had to fend off repeated calls for his resignation over his closeness to Fenech.

Robert Abela had refuted those calls but it seems he is using his new, strong mandate, to clear the stables from any controversy. The Prime Minister may have learnt his lesson from 2020 when Justyne Caruana had resigned from minister soon after her appointment when it emerged that her ex-husband, Silvio Valletta, had travelled with Fenech to watch a football game.

But Zammit Lewis is not the only minister to lose his place. Veteran Carmelo Abela, who occupied the role of minister within the Office of the Prime Minister, also failed to make it to Cabinet.

Clearing the stables

In the last legislature, Carmelo Abela ended up at the centre of controversy when two of Caruana Galizia’s murder suspects implicated him in the HSBC heist of 2010.

Carmelo Abela, who at the time of the heist worked at the bank’s head office, flatly denied the accusations and subsequently filed libel proceedings against Nationalist MP Jason Azzopardi who repeated those claims.

Carmelo Abela also faced repeated calls for his resignation from Cabinet at the time but the Prime Minister had stuck by his minister.

The Cabinet snub may be an indication that the Prime Minister does not want past controversies to dog his first popular mandate.

Another veteran, Michael Farrugia, was also left out of the Cabinet amid strong rumours he may yet be appointed Speaker of the House. His removal from Cabinet may be down to Abela’s drive to rope in new faces as he starts his own journey at the country’s helm.

The Keith Schembri spectre

Along with three ministers, Abela did not re-appoint parliamentary secretaries Chris Agius, Deo Debattista and Alex Muscat.

The surprise here is Muscat, who was one of the young faces first elected to parliament in 2017 after having worked within the Office of the Prime Minister under the wing of Keith Schembri in the 2013 legislature.

As parliamentary secretary, Muscat had captained the change in the citizenship programme after Abela became prime minister in 2020 but it appears that his previous association with Schembri may be the reason why he was overlooked for re-appointment to Cabinet.

Second District friction

On the other hand, Agius’s non-appointment to Cabinet may be down to the need for new faces but the decision will raise eyebrows in the Second District, where he was elected.

Abela opted to appoint his sister in law, Alison Zerafa Civelli as parliamentary secretary instead. Civelli, who contested the election for the first time, is Agius’s direct rival in Bormla on the Second District. The Prime Minister’s decision could be viewed as an attempt to strengthen Civelli’s standing on the district, while pushing for new faces.

The same verve to push fresh faces, could have also underpinned Abela’s decision to leave out Deo Debattista from the Cabinet. Debattista was parliamentary secretary and the portfolio he had has now passed on to minister Julia Farrugia Portelli.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Office of the Prime Minister said the Cabinet is a mixture of new and veteran faces. It is also a slimmed down Cabinet with 18 ministers and four parliamentary secretaries, apart from the Prime Minister.

The statement also said the Prime Minister will consider appointing more women to Cabinet after the casual elections take place and the gender mechanism is applied.