The Malta Independent 26 September 2021, Sunday

Cabinet reshuffle: 10 changes to fill 4 vacancies

Malta Independent Sunday, 30 March 2014, 10:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has capitalised on the opportunity provided by appointing Social Solidarity Minister Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca to the presidency by carrying out a significant overhaul of his Cabinet, in a reshuffle that was hastily announced yesterday afternoon.

The reshuffle was expected to be announced next week, but Dr Muscat’s hand may have been forced by the resignation of two members of Cabinet.

The resignation of Health Minister Godfrey Farrugia was the first to be announced: he handed in his resignation yesterday morning, and his resignation letter was made public.

But later in the day, Parliamentary Secretary Franco Mercieca made a surprise revelation: he had informed the Prime Minister of his intention to resign weeks ago, and was effectively awaiting the reshuffle to return to his private practice as an ophthalmologist.

News soon broke out that Dr Muscat was holding a series of one-to-one meetings at Girgenti Palace, prompting journalists to flock to the palace to keep an eye on proceedings – particularly on the ministers, parliamentary secretaries and MPs seen entering and leaving it.

Mounting speculation came to an end shortly before 5pm, when details of the reshuffle – which will take effect next Wednesday – were made public through a simple press release.


The details

There were three vacancies to fill, but Dr Muscat opted to create a fourth, slightly ahead of time, by announcing that Tourism Minister Karmenu Vella will be nominated to succeed Tonio Borg as the next Maltese member of the European Commission. Mr Vella’s nomination came as a bit of a surprise: news reports had indicated that it was all but certain that Finance Minister Edward Scicluna would be heading off to Brussels.

But the reshuffle did not limit itself to filling these vacancies, but led to widespread changes in the composition of Cabinet. The new Cabinet will include four new faces, while four others – three parliamentary secretaries and a minister – have been assigned greater responsibilities. Two parliamentary secretaries, on the other hand, have been reassigned to a new portfolio.

The number of ministers and parliamentary secretaries remains unchanged: 23 including Dr Muscat, the largest in Maltese history.

Perhaps the most surprising decision made concerned health: Konrad Mizzi will now become Energy and Health Minister, contrary to suggestions that Dr Muscat may end up taking over a portfolio which has been the subject of criticism and controversy.

However, direct responsibility for health will be assigned to a newly-appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Health: Chris Fearne.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Fearne – a consultant paediatric surgeon who is chairman of Mater Dei Hospital’s surgery department – will be given an exemption from the code of ethics to continue performing surgery, similar to the one controversially granted to Mr Mercieca.

The portfolio of the Office of the Prime Minister is actually shrinking, as Parliamentary Secretary for Justice Owen Bonnici will become Minister for Justice, Culture and Local Government.

Dr Bonnici had been his party’s culture spokesman in Opposition, and is to have direct responsibility over the issue. Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Buontempo, who is currently responsible for research, innovation, youth and sport in the Education Ministry, will be responsible for local government, which he had shadowed in opposition.

Parliamentary Secretary José Herrera, who is currently responsible for culture and local government, will become the Parliamentary Secretary for Competitiveness and Economic Growth, which at present is the portfolio of Edward Zammit Lewis.

Dr Zammit Lewis, on the other hand, will become the next Tourism Minister.

Parliamentary Secretary for Planning and the Simplification of Administrative Processes Michael Farrugia is the third parliamentary secretary to become a full-fledged minister: he will be inheriting Ms Coleiro Preca’s portfolio.

A Gozitan MP will be replacing another in Cabinet, as Justyne Caruana will replace Mr Mercieca as the Parliamentary Secretary for the Rights of Persons with Disability and Active Ageing.

Two newcomers will be inheriting portfolios vacated by parliamentary secretaries who have been assigned new responsibilities.

As The Malta Independent had anticipated, Michael Falzon will succeed Dr Farrugia as parliamentary secretary responsible for planning and the reduction of bureaucracy, while Anthony Agius Decelis will succeed him as anti-bureaucracy commissioner.

Chris Agius, on the other hand, will be inheriting Mr Buontempo’s portfolio: he had been his party’s spokesman on sports when in Opposition.

Carmelo Abela will become the government’s spokesman, a new role, although he will also continue to serve as government whip.


The resignations

According to his resignation letter, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had actually offered the post of Family and Social Solidarity Minister – as well as another, unnamed ministerial position – to Godfrey Farrugia.

But while Dr Farrugia thanked Dr Muscat for showing his trust in him, he was adamant that he was not willing to assume responsibility for any other portfolio, choosing to resign instead.

“When I accepted to become Minister for Health I only did so because I saw the appointment as a golden opportunity through which I could strengthen my service to the dignity and needs of patients, an aim which I have always held,” Dr Farrugia wrote.

He said he was convinced that in the year he spent as minister, he and his colleagues had laid the necessary groundwork to ensure the sector’s continued sustainability.

“Therefore,” he concluded, “I am returning this responsibility to you, once you have felt the need for me to do so.”

Dr Muscat appeared keen to downplay suggestions of a rift between him and Dr Farrugia, going as far as to upload a photograph showing the two of them smiling and embracing on his Twitter account.

“A chat with my good friend Godfrey Farrugia, thanking him for his contribution. Sure he has still more to offer,” Dr Muscat wrote on the social networking website.

Mr Mercieca’s resignation, on the other hand, confirms claims made in reports which surfaced last month that he was seeking to quit cabinet to return to working as an ophthalmic surgeon. He had steadfastly refused to comment on the matter back then.

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