The Malta Independent 23 January 2021, Saturday

To reshuffle or not to – Robert Abela’s choices

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 15 November 2020, 09:45 Last update: about 3 months ago

When Miriam Dalli and Clyde Caruana were co-opted to the Maltese Parliament in October, the talk of the town was that a Cabinet reshuffle was in the offing.

The departure of former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and backbencher Etienne Grech offered the Labour Party the opportunity to include two heavyweights in its team.

Miriam Dalli had obtained the highest number of personal votes in the 2019 European Parliament election, proof of her popularity but also of her good work during her first term in Brussels. She is seen as a potential leader, and there had already been talk of her leaving her post to contest for the party leadership when Muscat had abandoned Castille. She had then declined the possibility; this time, she was persuaded to return home, so to speak.

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Caruana is less known among the people and his political career is only at the beginning, but in the inside circles of the Labour Party and especially at the OPM he is known for his personality, clear vision and hard work, apart from being Prime Minister Robert Abela’s right hand man.

When Muscat and Grech resigned, in the same week, the Labour Party chose wisely.

In Muscat’s case, the most obvious pathway was via a casual election, but the two candidates still in the running for the seat on the second electoral district which Muscat vacated, Stefan Buontempo and Mark Causon, were told to stay away.

This paved the way for a co-option, and Labour quickly made it a double occasion when Etienne Grech suddenly resigned, citing personal reasons. Grech had been elected via a casual election in 2017, and so the only way he could be replaced in the Maltese Parliament was through a co-option.

It was the perfect chance for the PL to bring in strong personalities, especially considering that one of the two MPs who had resigned was a former leader and former Prime Minister. In the eyes of the neutrals, Joseph Muscat left under a dark cloud, but for the Labour diehards he was still the man who lifted the party out of a long period in opposition.

Replacing Muscat with Dalli was the best Labour could go for. And having an up-and-coming politician like Caruana substituting a backbencher whose contribution was minimal was also, for Labour, a step in the right direction.

Cabinet changes

The next election must be held by September 2022, and so technically we could still be nearly two years away. Abela has ruled out an early poll, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as one reason for this. It is highly unlikely that an election will take place in 2021 – unless something as big as the Panama Papers scandal changes the agenda as it did for Joseph Muscat in 2017. At present, the most probable scenario is an election in the first half of 2022.

If this is the case, then we are still to reach the midway point of Abela’s term as Prime Minister. As said, the addition of Dalli and Caruana led to speculation about a Cabinet reshuffle. The question is – is now the right time for it?

The Cabinet of Ministers and parliamentary secretaries is less than a year old.  Robert Abela was elected Labour leader, and subsequently Prime Minister, in January. In appointing his team, he made several changes from the previous Muscat administration, shifted portfolios, promoted parliamentary secretaries to ministers, left out veteran MPs and appointed younger faces as junior ministers.

Changing the line-up now could be interpreted as a tacit admission of failure on Abela’s behalf. It would seem that he is acknowledging his mistakes. There would be arguments that he made the wrong choices in January and is trying to correct them now, when still in time for them to have a (positive?) effect on the government’s overall performance. Abela could still argue that the changes were made because of Dalli and Caruana.

On the other hand, leaving things as they are could be seen as the Prime Minister being indecisive, a label that has already been bandied about during these past 10 months since he took over the reins of the country. Added to this, if nothing changes then the obvious question would be: why was Miriam Dalli forced to abandon Brussels, giving up her financially more lucrative appointment to sit on the government backbench?

Clyde Caruana

On the day that Finance Minister Edward Scicluna presented the government’s budget, it was widely conjectured that it was the last time that he had the onus of doing that particular job. Rumours were making the rounds and were also reported by various media that, soon after the budget, he was going to step down. He denied this, and so far remains in his place.

The speculation was probably fuelled by the fact that Caruana, incidentally on that same day, had been sworn-in as an MP, together with Miriam Dalli. Caruana, an economist and, till now, Abela’s right hand man as his head of secretariat, was being touted as Scicluna’s possible successor.

Under Scicluna, Malta moved in the black, as for the first time in decades it managed a budgetary surplus which was maintained for a few years until the Coronavirus pandemic hit. The Labour government’s main argument when it started dishing out financial assistance to the beleaguered private sector was that it could offer sustenance only because Malta’s finances were good.

Like any other politician, Scicluna has his faults too and, in his case, it is his indirect link, as Finance Minister, to projects which are shrouded in scandal. He is a favourite among the Labour electorate, and made it in two districts in the 2017 election. Whether he will contest again – he turns 75 next year – remains to be seen. His age is not in his favour.

Caruana is touted as his natural successor and many believe that he was brought into Parliament to take his place. It will not be easy to fill into Scicluna’s shoes. Scicluna may not be a good communicator and the way he answers questions is often too convoluted, but nobody doubts his acumen in finance.

Miriam Dalli

If, for Robert Abela, a switch between Scicluna and Caruana is, on paper, an easy one to make, when it comes to place Miriam Dalli it gets more complicated.

Dalli has wide interests and has worked in several sectors in the European Parliament, including the environment, public health, civil rights, energy, justice and home affairs.

This gives Abela a number of options where to place her. But this would inevitably affect other ministers, including some whose performance cannot be easily discarded. Other than veteran politician Michael Farrugia, the sectors above are run by ministers who are still going up in their political career.

This includes Abela’s deputy, Chris Fearne, who is at present running the health portfolio in the middle of a pandemic, and a change there would not be so wise. Moving Fearne would also be seen as a not-so-subtle blow to Abela’s only contender for the party leadership and, as a result, the post of Prime Minister.

The other portfolios mentioned above are run by Aaron Farrugia, Edward Zammit Lewis and Byron Camilleri, all of whom were entrusted with the job in these particular sectors by Abela last January. For Farrugia and Camilleri it is their first appointment as minister. Shifting them around would be tantamount to a vote of no confidence in them.

Of course, Abela is free to give Dalli a portfolio that covers a different area in which she has worked in. Or else, if he does want to place her in one of the above ministries, he could still shift the incumbents to important, big ministries to make it seem that there was no kind of demotion involved.

But, in any case, to include Dalli in the Cabinet some toes will be stepped on.

Others

If he does go for a reshuffle, Abela might use this opportunity – the Dalli/Caruana co-options – to shift around ministers who have not lived up to the expectations. He may also decide to promote parliamentary secretaries to ministers.

Apart from Dalli and Caruana, he does not have much to play with from the backbench – unless he wants to give another chance to Justyne Caruana, who in January was forced to resign days after being appointed Gozo Minister, and not for any fault of hers.

It is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to do as he pleases with his Cabinet, always keeping in mind competency, district considerations, the mixture of experience and youth, gender and internal issues.

He might choose to leave things as they are, which would mean that the Dalli and Caruana additions will serve other purposes.

 

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