Lost in translation? Robert Abela’s brand new Cabinet: continuity with a twist

These are early days, but Abela’s stewardship, so far, has the look and feel of an administration just after a general election

The Prime Minister’s first decisions, including his Cabinet choices, are more about rupture than continuity – at least in key areas that have been under the spotlight
The Prime Minister’s first decisions, including his Cabinet choices, are more about rupture than continuity – at least in key areas that have been under the spotlight

Robert Abela’s call for continuity during the leadership campaign may have got lost in translation somewhere between voting day and his swearing-in.

The Prime Minister’s first decisions, including his Cabinet choices, are more about rupture than continuity – at least in key areas that have been under the spotlight.

These are early days, which, as expected, are characterised by enthusiasm and good intentions. But Abela’s stewardship so far has the look and feel of an administration just after a general election and not one that has been in power for 31 months.

Abela’s Cabinet does not include Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona, controversial characters that were at the centre of strong criticism. In choosing Clyde Caruana to head his office, the Prime Minister opted for a radically different individual from Keith Schembri.

The initial decisions indicate that the Prime Minister wanted to recapture the middle-of-the-road voters, who supported Labour but were disillusioned by the events of the past month.

MaltaToday takes a look at some of the decisions the Prime Minister took in his first week at the helm.

Let the memorial stay: a first move from Abela
Let the memorial stay: a first move from Abela

Ditching the poisonous nomenclature: appointing Clyde Caruana

Robert Abela’s first decision was to appoint economist Clyde Caruana as head of secretariat in the Office of the Prime Minister.

Caruana’s role has been described in the media as that of chief-of-staff. But Abela has ditched the nomenclature chief-of-staff, introduced by his predecessor upon taking office in 2013.

Whether Caruana should be described as chief-of-staff or head of secretariat is a moot point but it signals the rupture Abela wanted to make with the recent past that saw businessman Keith Schembri occupy the role.

Schembri’s name has become toxic, and with it, the over-arching role he played in government, including his involvement in controversial major contracts and agreements, and his camaraderie with business people.

Abela has made it clear that decisions will be taken by him and his Cabinet – elected officials – and not by a hidden hand.

Within this context, Caruana’s choice is crucial. An economist by profession, who also lectures at the University of Malta, Caruana is unassuming but focussed and strong on policy.

Suffice to say that Caruana had been the architect of the Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin’s policy document calling for a youth guarantee before the 2013 election and which was eventually endorsed by both major political parties.

But Caruana does not only bring with him academic background. He is also a practical person.

In 2014, he was the person to draw up the framework for the government’s free childcare for all and implement it. He also served as Jobs Plus CEO for the past few years, captaining a reform that has seen a constant reduction in the number of unemployed people.

But Caruana knows politics as well. He has held elected office in the past when he contested with the Labour Party for the Żabbar council and eventually became mayor of the locality.

Caruana’s choice is a rupture from the business-inclined attitude of Schembri but it is also a measure of continuity for government’s economic direction.

Caruana has been a vocal defender of the economic growth of the past few years, which has required the importation of foreign labour. He could be an important cog in the interplay between maintaining Malta’s growth potential and measures directed at alleviating the wage pressures on lower categories, envisaged by the Prime Minister.

Ending the flower war: reaching out

The decision to stop clearing the Daphne Caruana Galizia makeshift memorial in Valletta was an important one to end a puerile ‘war’ that has been going on for more than two years.

In a situation where Malta’s rule of law came under intense spotlight from international institutions, the daily clearing of flowers and candles was consistently brought up by MEPs and institutions as a sign of government’s miserable treatment of the Caruana Galizia family and mourners.

Abela’s was a goodwill gesture that distinguishes his administration from the one it has replaced but it also helps the government focus on the more important issues linked to good governance.

The move did not go down well with some Labour Party diehards. But Abela’s decision is an attempt to reach out to a hostile crowd and defuse the anger towards his government. It is also an attempt to show middle-of-the-road voters, who drifted to Labour under Muscat’s leadership but got disillusioned by the events of the past weeks that he intends doing things differently.

A new direction for the police: marching orders

The police commissioner’s resignation, which has all the undertones of a forced removal despite the flowery language, was a clear signal of government’s intention to tackle the weaknesses in the police force.

Cutajar became the figurehead for criticism directed at the police by activists and many other people, who could not understand how certain people in power appeared to be above the law. The cherry on the cake came last week during the constitutional court case instituted by murder suspect Yorgen Fenech to have lead inspector Keith Arnaud removed from the Caruana Galizia murder case.

While testifying in the case, Cutajar spoke of how the police were looking into leaks from the investigation. Fenech has alleged that Arnaud was the person leaking the information to Keith Schembri.

When asked, Cutajar said Arnaud was investigating the leaks. His reply prompted Judge Lawrence Mintoff to ask in an incredulous tone: “So Arnaud was investigating himself?”

This incident was the last straw that broke the camel’s back because it made Cutajar look like an ineffectual police chief in the face of serious accusations.

With Cutajar out of the way, Abela now has the opportunity to start afresh. However, he has not rushed to propose a name, hinting at changes in the way the police commissioner should be appointed.

It remains to be seen how the new commissioner will be chosen and more importantly, who the person will be. Seeking consensus on a name with the Opposition is a pledge Abela made in the leadership campaign and he would do well to try and achieve that.

The police have done a good job in bringing the perpetrators of Caruana Galizia’s murder to justice but they should do more to rid themselves of the subservient mentality towards politicians.

The manner in which accusations against Keith Schembri were handled left a lot to be desired and Abela must make sure that any shackles to achieving justice are removed. Cutajar’s departure sends the right signal.

Ministers: Silvio Schembri, Aaron Farrugia, and Byron Camilleri
Ministers: Silvio Schembri, Aaron Farrugia, and Byron Camilleri

A young face for a tough job: make or break

Byron Camilleri, who will be 32 in a fortnight, is the new home affairs minister. A lawyer and former mayor of Fgura, he was first elected to Parliament in 2017. From the backbench, where he served as Labour Whip, he now sits in what is possibly the hottest seat in Abela’s Cabinet.

Camilleri’s choice was a definite break from the past for a ministry that has come under intense criticism as a result of deficiencies in the police force and a perceived lack of enforcement. It sends out a signal that government intends on delivering change.

Camilleri will have to drive the reform that Abela has promised in the police corps. In his first comments, Camilleri has said that he will not hesitate to take hard decisions. Whether he can stay the course has to be seen, given that he has had no previous experience in the executive.

He will have the Prime Minister’s backing – Abela has pledged to give particular attention to the ministry – which is important in a sector where changing ingrained methods and mentalities is going to be a challenge.

Camilleri’s new posting can either make him in a big way, if he does deliver, or break him, if he fails to bring about change.

Giving planning a green tinge: the new environment ministry

Abela’s decision to place the Planning Authority in the portfolio of the environment ministry suggests that the new administration wants a greener direction for planning decisions.

But this could simply turn out to be green-washing unless the new environment minister, Aaron Farrugia, translates this new direction into meaningful policy change.

Survivor: former tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis gets justice, leadership rival Chris Fearne stays on health and deputy PM, while finance minister Edward Scicluna carries on as before
Survivor: former tourism minister Edward Zammit Lewis gets justice, leadership rival Chris Fearne stays on health and deputy PM, while finance minister Edward Scicluna carries on as before

The ODZ policy introduced in 2014 was a welcome development for farmers because it provided a framework for developments that are necessary in the agricultural sector. It also delivered clarity in those cases were development was needed to fix derelict rural buildings. But it was ridiculously stretched to allow even a mound of stones to magically transform into a villa with pool. This policy needs revision, just as the policy on building heights needs to be clear that tall buildings should only be permissible in the identified localities and nowhere else.

But beyond planning concerns that tend to eclipse other considerations, the environment ministry has to deal with the waste issue. The country has to move forward on plans to develop an incinerator at Għallis, introduce waste separation rules for businesses, and speed up the export of recyclable goods to alleviate the pressure on bring-in sites.

There is also the need to focus on improving biodiversity in rural and urban areas, as well as more afforestation projects. The ministry must also give the Environment and Resources Authority more clout to enforce rules and bring culprits to check. It’s a tall order indeed for Farrugia.

A housing transformation: responding to the Left

The creation of a new ministry for housing is undoubtedly Abela’s response to criticism the Labour government has been receiving from the more leftist elements within it.

Since 2013, the government has not put one social housing unit on the market, although there are pending projects that are expected to deliver some 1,500 units over the coming years. More significant is the impact on the housing market from a growing economy. Rents have increased exorbitantly, pricing out vulnerable individuals from the market and making it difficult for the younger generation, where renting out is not anathema, to find affordable rents.

Roderick Galdes, who is now housing minister, had piloted legislation last year to introduce a measure of control in the rental sector. It is important that the impact of this legislation is monitored to determine whether changes need to be made further down the line that respond to evolving market realties.

But, more importantly, is the need to address the problem of a lack of affordable housing for those who do not qualify for any social help but do not have a big enough wage to secure bank financing to be able to buy their own house at current market prices.

Abela’s decision to elevate housing as a ministry in its own right indicates that government will give this sector more importance. Galdes should hope and push for a budgetary allocation that matches this importance to ensure the change is not just a cosmetic one.

Promoted: citizenship parliamentary secretary Julia Farrugia gets tourism, while social policy minister Michael Falzon remains in place, and former environment minister José Herrera gets arts, heritage and culture
Promoted: citizenship parliamentary secretary Julia Farrugia gets tourism, while social policy minister Michael Falzon remains in place, and former environment minister José Herrera gets arts, heritage and culture

He came, he saw but will he conquer? The education conundrum

One of the least understood moves was Owen Bonnici’s transfer to the education ministry. It feels like a demotion for the former justice minister but really and truly it is a promotion, given the ministry’s massive budget, its importance and visibility.

There is no doubt that Bonnici’s transfer out of the justice ministry was Abela’s signal that he wants things to change in that sector. Bonnici has been on the receiving end for too long as justice minister and a change was necessary to break that cycle of negativity.

But the mixed feelings surrounding his new appointment as education minister are the result of people asking whether he is suitable for the role, especially when compared to the man he has replaced – Evarist Bartolo – whose name has been synonymous with education for the good part of three decades.

Bonnici can learn and the administrative set-up in the ministry is well-primed to give him the necessary backup. But he will have to learn fast in a sector where strong unions hold a lot of sway and change is driven by social demands as much as ideology.

Bonnici’s calm demeanour may help him navigate these waters but he will have to stamp his foot when overzealous technocrats plough ahead with little consideration to tangible classroom concerns.

The journey will not be easy and Bonnici does not have the luxury of time on his side. How fast he can grasp the sector could make all the difference between a successful transition and failure.

It’s not all bad, right? Owen Bonnici (left) gets education, Chris Agius stays in place under transport minister Ian Borg, Carmelo Abela moves from foreign to a less onerous portfolio, Rosianne Cutajar elevated to equality and reforms secretary, Justyne Caruana retains Gozo, and Alex Muscat gets the citizenship brief
It’s not all bad, right? Owen Bonnici (left) gets education, Chris Agius stays in place under transport minister Ian Borg, Carmelo Abela moves from foreign to a less onerous portfolio, Rosianne Cutajar elevated to equality and reforms secretary, Justyne Caruana retains Gozo, and Alex Muscat gets the citizenship brief

Exporting good governance: the decent emissary

Evarist Bartolo has been tasked with the role of foreign and European affairs minister with the task of communicating Malta’s willingness to strengthen good governance.

Bartolo had been an open critic of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri when it was revealed that they held companies in Panama back in 2016. He remained a critical voice even recently with his daily poetic epistles on Facebook.

This makes him the ideal interlocutor abroad when dealing with critical voices, who could possibly see in him an honest broker and a decent emissary.

But in Bartolo’s own words, fixing Malta’s reputation abroad will not only depend on him but on the actions his government will be taking at home to fix the deficiencies. The initial decisions suggest that Abela’s administration is serious about addressing the problems. Bartolo can only hope that the Prime Minister’s resolve stays the course – in the twilight of his political career it will make his job much easier.

Still get to make my roads: Transport Minister Ian Borg (top) with newly-promoted minister for agriculture Clint Camilleri
Still get to make my roads: Transport Minister Ian Borg (top) with newly-promoted minister for agriculture Clint Camilleri

Steady as she goes: the continuity ministers

Edward Scicluna’s meeting with Abela on the evening when the Prime Minister was forming his Cabinet only lasted 10 minutes. It was evident that Abela would keep Scicluna in the same driving seat at the finance ministry, where he has delivered a financial and economic miracle.

Scicluna’s retention is the surest sign of the continuity Abela preached about during the leadership campaign. It also sets minds at rest that the direction of recent years in the administration of public finances will be maintained – Abela would not want the surplus to turn into a deficit.

Another continuity candidate is Michael Falzon who was retained as social policy minister. The decision signals continuity in a ministry that has efficiently implemented the government’s social measures, while working to reduce benefit fraud.

Continuity was also important in the health sector where Chris Fearne has had a successful performance. The choice may have been logical but it was also conditioned by Fearne’s behaviour in the aftermath of the leadership loss that saw him stay away from Abela’s swearing-in ceremony. Fearne’s initial reluctance to form part of Cabinet appears to have softened and he can now continue where he left off. The health sector faces evolving challenges, bigger expenditures and needs a decision-maker who can act judiciously. Fearne fits that bill perfectly although it will also depend on whether he loses his enthusiasm to perform.

‘I’m packing my bags...’ Evarist Bartolo (right) gets the foreign affairs portfolio and gets ready to jet-set around the European capitals and beyond, while former home affairs minister Michael Farrugia gets a lowly portfolio of sorts: energy and water management
‘I’m packing my bags...’ Evarist Bartolo (right) gets the foreign affairs portfolio and gets ready to jet-set around the European capitals and beyond, while former home affairs minister Michael Farrugia gets a lowly portfolio of sorts: energy and water management

In Gozo, Abela may have been forced to maintain continuity as a result of Justyne Caruana’s tenacity to hold on to the portfolio. Caruana refused to budge and take up a different ministerial job, leaving Abela with no choice but to re-appoint her Gozo minister. Caruana has earned widespread respect in Gozo and under her wings, surveys have shown that the PL continued to gain valuable ground. Abela can only hope that this will continue to be the case.

The other continuity candidate is Ian Borg, who retains his transport and infrastructure portfolio, albeit without the Planning Authority. By retaining him in the same role, Abela has underscored the importance of development in a country that has seen its infrastructure creak under the weight of a bigger population. The massive road projects being undertaken have proved popular and for many are a welcome relief.

Borg may be the bête noir of the environmental lobby but with a massive annual budget to get the road infrastructure up to scratch, there is no doubt that he has managed to deliver. And with Borg’s leadership ambitions put on hold, this is one person Abela will want on his side.

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