It may be a new Cabinet by procedure, but certainly not by design, the one appointed by Lawrence Gonzi this week.
The cautious approach adopted by Gonzi meant little has changed from the previous Cabinet appointed by former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami.
The big surprise remains Gonzi’s decision to annex the finance portfolio. He also preferred newcomer, Tonio Fenech to the experienced Tony Abela as parliamentary secretary responsible for finances. Abela was given an unspecified role within the Office of the Prime Minister. The official reason given for the highly questionable decision - government wants to give finances top priority - is hardly plausible.
It was conditioned by John Dalli’s refusal to continue serving as finance minister and the lack of someone suitable to take on the sensitive role. Not even former minister Josef Bonnici was trusted with the portfolio, it seems.
Dalli got what he wanted, the foreign office, which gives him the chance to relax from the flak he has had to take for the past 10 years at the finance ministry. However, the post may also be a source of friction between Dalli and Malta’s permanent EU representative Richard Cachia Caruana. It is an open secret that relations between the two are not at all warm.
The situation may further complicate itself with former minister Michael Frendo making a comeback on the front bench as parliamentary secretary under Dalli’s wing. Frendo is also known to have a terse relationship with Cachia Caruana.
Roads and transport
What was a super ministry encompassing finance and economic services has now been broken down with responsibilities apportioned between four different ministries. Parliamentary secretary Edwin Vassallo retained his areas of responsibility, the self employed and consumers, but has a new boss in the likes of Censu Galea.
Galea’s new portfolio does not include roads and transport, a move, which can be interpreted as a sign of no confidence in the way he handled delays in road construction and the never-arriving reform of public transport.
But Galea’s loss is Jesmond Mugliett’s gain. The Tarxien architect’s portfolio includes roads, transport and urban development. The composition of the new ministry under Mugliett may have been a strategic move to concentrate road building and projects in the south of the island, which have been consistently neglected over the past few years.
Ninu out in the cold
Mugliett’s new ministry is also a polite way of gradually sidelining Ninu Zammit, whose job title includes infrastructure. Indeed, it is unclear under whose responsibility capital projects will fall including the development of key tourist areas, previously under the tourism ministry.
Zammit was definitely the biggest loser on Tuesday after his post electoral ‘baby,’ waste management including the siting of temporary landfills, was transferred to George Pullicino.
While waste will be a headache for whoever is made responsible for it, there is no missing that a vote of no confidence was taken.
The already huge environment and rural affairs ministry has now grown further and the transfer of waste management is a sign of the prime minister’s trust in his close collaborator, George Pullicino. The move may also be seen as Gonzi’s first step towards reversing the decision to site the temporary landfills next to Mnajdra and Hagar Qim.
Parliamentary Secretary Frans Agius was transferred under Pullicino and given responsibility for agriculture and fisheries to reduce the burden on Pullicino. But judging from the very little that was done in the environmental field and the very much that still needs to be done, doubts have been cast on Pullicino’s ability to reap quick and effective results in a larger ministry.
The social policy ministry was watered down with responsibility for the elderly and community care being transferred to the health ministry portfolio. Social policy, renamed Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity, held Tuesday’s innovative surprise with Dolores Cristina being promoted to minister after serving as parliamentary secretary for 10 months. Hers is a deserved promotion given Cristina’s down to earth, hard working approach.
Austin Gatt, Francis Zammit Dimech, Louis Galea, Louis Deguara and Giovanna Debono retained their previous portfolios with additional responsibilities spilled over from other ministries.
Gatt saw the privatisation programme transferred to his wing alongside IT and government investments. After having kick started, albeit in a controversial manner, the restructuring of public entities it was a wise move to leave Gatt in charge. Gonzi is going to need a driver in that area if he hopes to get public companies ship shape.
Zammit Dimech saw culture being added to his tourism portfolio. Gonzi must have calculated that it would have been too politically risky to remove Zammit Dimech even though tourism is passing through its worst patch ever with operators complaining of reduced profitability. Again adding culture to tourism will not makes things easier for a minister who does not have a reputation of being decisive.
Galea’s education ministry has scooped up the remains of what was once the short-lived sports and youth ministry. Both areas of responsibility have now been transferred under education in what smacks heavily of the way portfolios were set up pre-1996.
Deguara, dented by his u-turn on the smoking ban retained the health ministry and was also given the responsibility for the elderly. However, Helen D’Amato, appointed parliamentary secretary for the first time, was roped in to oversee the additional responsibilities.
As widely expected, the Gozo ministry remained in the hands of Giovanna Debono despite widespread criticism of her handling of affairs on the sister island.
The real change in cabinet’s composition lies with the creation of four new cabinet committees to focus on key areas; environment, social policy, competitiveness and national projects.
The committees are not headed by the ministers under whose responsibility the identified areas fall. Environment is headed by Tonio Borg, social policy by Louis Galea, competitiveness by John Dalli and national projects by Austin Gatt.
The chosen four are considered to be among Gonzi’s most competent ministers and could very well act as cabinet’s inner decision-making circle, referred to as a kitchen cabinet.
However, it still has to be seen what role these committees will play and whether they would succeed in achieving more efficient inter-ministerial co-ordination.