It is possibly the beginning of the end for Josef Bonnici’s political career. But his refusal of a job as Parliamentary Secretary under the new Prime Minister will somehow alter his reputation of the ‘goodie’ politician who had the reputation of being decision-shy.
In his sheepish voice, Professor Bonnici told Lawrence Gonzi a resolute “No,” when faced with the proposal to become Parliamentary Secretary for finance in Castille last Tuesday.
Josef Bonnici wanted to become finance minister. The 50-year-old economics expert had already notified his people that the ministry was his, encouraged by John Dalli’s refusal to retain the hot seat and the lack of other Nationalist MPs qualified to take the job.
He went all spruced up for the occasion on Tuesday afternoon when called by the Prime Minister, but walked down the stairs of Castille with an unmistakably sober face.
Bonnici is reputed to have told Gonzi that it would not be possible for him to control ministers’ spending because he (Bonnici) would not be sitting around the ministerial table. Parliamentary secretaries do not attend Cabinet meetings.
The former minister for economic services would not answer questions about his decision. “Ask the Prime Minister,” he repeatedly said when contacted last week.
Nor would he answer any questions about his political future, on whether he intends to contest the European Parliament elections, or for how long he intends to remain a backbencher.
“I’m not giving any comments. I’m sorry. I think that is my position.”
The last twelve months must have marked the most painful period in Prof. Bonnici’s political life. He was barely elected to Parliament last year, making it in only thanks to a casual election, after having served for five years as economic affairs minister.
As minister, he was responsible for the ailing manufacturing industry, trade, foreign investment, the Malta Freeport, government investments (including Maltapost and Bank of Valletta), Malta International Airport, Malta Shipbuilding, Water Services Corporation, Enemalta, Air Malta (where he kept Labour-appointed chairman Louis Grech) and the Malta Drydocks – a hot portfolio in its own right.
The Nationalist government gave its first indications of putting him on the backburner when it was decided that a task force headed by then Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi would intervene at Malta Drydocks to reach a new, controversial collective agreement with the General Workers’ Union. Despite Prof. Bonnici’s portfolio, the PN machine made it clear that it was Gonzi’s negotiation skills which led to a final agreement with the union, including early retirement schemes, new working conditions and redeployment of workers with the government.
Things got worse when the new minister responsible for Air Malta, Austin Gatt, started putting Prof. Bonnici’s performance into serious doubt by claiming that no steps were taken by the national airline after 9/11 to face the new realities, when Air Malta was under the chairmanship of Labour-leaning Louis Grech.
His image was further dented with Austin Gatt insisting that Louis Grech received a remuneration of Lm55,933 between 2002 and 2003 as Air Malta chairman – the same year when the company suffered massive losses – with Prof. Bonnici declaring this was “news” to him as he always believed Grech earned around Lm23,000. He also pointed out that he had never encountered any opposition from the Cabinet on Grech’s remuneration, clearly irked by Gatt’s outburst.
When asked last month by The Malta Financial and Business Times about his past experience as minister, he defended his performance saying that he had done a decent job when it came to investment promotion and job creation, sowing projects such as the Lufthansa Teknik-Air Malta joint venture and the USS LaSalle contract.
“Everybody can reach their own conclusion, but I think I did a good job,” he said.
The Prime Minister disagrees and has made this evident by taking the finance ministry into his hands, despite his declared lack of expertise in economics and finance. It must have been humiliating for the Professor of Economics who lectures in macroeconomics and econometrics at the University of Malta to take up the job of a junior minister. He remembers a time when the PN brought him back from Australia, where he was senior lecturer in economics, to serve as the prime minister’s economic advisor in 1988.
Now, his future is an open question, and he’s refusing to speak about it.