It is a telling indictment of the difficulties currently facing the Gonzi administration, that Joe Cassar’s very first action as health minister was to announce ‘substantial changes’ to his earlier proposal for a primary healthcare reform bill.
This is unusual, partly because the selfsame bill had only very recently been presented, with all the usual pomp and ceremony, as part of the package of reforms with which government intends to transform Malta into a centre of excellence by 2015.
But the real anomaly lies in the manner of its sheepish withdrawal – i.e., under threat of open revolt by Dr Jean-Pierre Farrugia, whose outburst last week added a whole new dimension to the rumours of unrest currently gripping the PN parliamentary group.
Himself a doctor, Farrugia claims that his opposition to the reform stemmed from shortcomings within the proposed law itself – namely, that in drawing up the legislation, government had caved in to the general practitioners’s lobby... which in turn would be empowered by this law to increase its own client base, as well as charge additional fees for referrals to State-run services.
Farrugia in fact claims that the resulting reform would spell an end to ‘free health for all’ in its current form – arguing that this would represent a radical departure from the ‘socially conscious’ Nationalist Party, as refashioned under Eddie Fenech Adami in the 1980s and 90s.
Certainly, the reform bill itself does give the impression that some services currently offered for free will be curtailed in future, in direct contrast to numerous assurances by Lawrence Gonzi, before the last election, that ‘no charges would be introduced’ in the national health service.
But this represents at best a small fraction of the forces currently undermining both the proposed primary healthcare reform, as well as (more significantly) the credibility and sense of purpose of the present administration of government.
It is now more than evident that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has an uneasy relationship with his own parliamentary group, and that, as a result, practically all his decisions between now and the next election will have to be taken under duress, if not downright political blackmail.
Gonzi has effectively become a captive within Auberge de Castille: held to ransom by a group of would-be rebels, who – for all the noise they are making at present – appear at the same time to lack any clear direction and common purpose of their own, or even the initiative to take the plunge and bring matters to a head.
At this point, analogies with former lame-duck governments become inevitable. Perhaps the clearest example (certainly the most recent) was the very public fall-out in 1997 between former PM Alfred Sant and Dom Mintoff, by then a backbencher, leading to the collapse of Sant’s government in September the following year.
However, there is a significant difference between the two scenarios. From the very first indications of unrest after the notorious ‘anti-social’ Budget of 97, Mintoff made it amply clear that the cause of his consternation was his own Prime Minister’s social and economic direction. As Mintoff himself put it at the time, Labour under Alfred Sant had “lost its social soul”.
The fact that the government happened to collapse over an apparently unrelated proposal – i.e., the lease of the Cottonera waterfront to a private consortium – was ultimately coincidental.
Mintoff had by then resolved to vote against the proposal come hell or high water; and by tying the issue to a vote of confidence, Sant gave him the opportunity to bring his own government down.
Today’s scenario is different on at least two counts: one, there is no single focus uniting the various disgruntled members of the PN parliamentary group (as can be attested by their cacophonic concerns, as expressed in our front-page story today); and two, Lawrence Gonzi is to say the least highly unlikely to emulate Alfred Sant by tying a vote of confidence, either to the healthcare reform bill, or to any other issue that may arise before 2013.
As things stand, therefore, only two prospects may realistically be considered for the immediate future. The first (and least likely) is that the backbench revolt will go all the way, engineering a crisis of confidence which would force the Prime Minister to call an early election against his better judgement.
The second, infinitely more probable scenario is that of a permanently hamstrung government, hanging on to power only by virtue of accommodating its own disgruntled members here and there, but without being able to fully implement any serious programme of its own.
One does not need to be a political expert to appreciate that this sorry state of affairs is at best unsustainable, at worst an ill wind that blows absolutely nobody any good. Either way, something’s clearly got to give.