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Editorial | Wednesday, 10 March 2010 Issue. 154

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Gonzi’s survival guide

On closer scrutiny, the blueprint for ‘private parliamentary secretaries’ to chaperone existing ministers – Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s somewhat hurriedly-adopted plan to mitigate a perceived ‘rebellion’ among disgruntled government backbenchers – begins to resemble more of a survival guide for Gonzi himself, than any attempt to improve the efficacy of Government departments.
In essence, the idea is to create new, junior positions within ministries in order to accommodate a number of members of parliament.
The full list has yet to be finalised, though MaltaToday is reliably informed that several of the ‘dissident MPs’ will feature in a number of newly-invented government roles (for which there may or may not be a demand).
Significantly, however, this political gambit breaks with tradition in one crucial respect – so far it has not come accompanied by any form of official justification whatsoever.
No attempt has to date been made to explain the need for this new venture, at least not from the point of view of streamlining the functions of government.
On the contrary, it appears that inspiration for this plan came to the Prime Minister during a series of one-on-one meetings with individual backbenchers, all of whom had in one way or another ‘rocked the boat’ since the March 8 election left Gonzi clinging to power by a fragile, single-seat majority.
Viewed from this perspective, it is clear that the measure was taken for no other reason than to ward off any existing or potential threats to the stability of Gonzi’s government – with little or no consideration for its possible side-effects on parliamentary procedure (which in fact will have to be fine-tuned to accommodate the changes... though with what constitutional justification remains to be seen).
In a nutshell, it appears that the Gonzi administration has given up trying to pretend that all is well within its fold, and is now tinkering with the very foundations of government in order to create a foothold for itself in a difficult moment.
But as has been correctly pointed out elsewhere, the system currently being proposed is at a glance ill-suited to the local scenario. The concept of ‘private parliamentary secretaries’ was originally designed with a much larger parliament in mind – namely, Britain’s House of Commons – and also a much larger Cabinet of Ministers with far more extensive portfolios.
Applied locally, its immediate effect is that a Cabinet originally intended to shrink, will now grow – and with it will presumably grow all the bureaucratic obstacles and personality clashes that inevitably arise, when disparate systems are fused for all the wrong reasons.
But this is not to say that this new management model comes with no advantages whatsoever. On the contrary – it is a system which has worked in the past (in fact, it has been tried and tested for over 40 years now) and has already proved highly successful in achieving at least one, important goal: i.e., defusing unrest within dysfunctional governments, by forcing unruly MPs to toe the official line against their will.
The ‘PPS’ system itself was lifted virtually lock, stock and barrel from parliamentary procedure in the UK, where it comes complete with a convention, written into the Ministerial Code, which effectively obliges PPS’s to always vote in line with government policy.
The precise wording is as follows: “Parliamentary Private Secretaries are expected to support the government in important divisions in the House. No PPS who votes against Government can retain his or her position.”(Section 3.8, Ministerial Code.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the above quotation, in the UK the role of ‘PPS’ enjoys a long tradition of being exploited by Prime Ministers to hammer together reluctant parliamentary majorities ahead of unpopular votes.
One of the more memorable occasions this took place was in May 1949, when no fewer than five PPS’s voted against the government on a bill to do with Irish devolution. British Prime Minister Clement Atlee’s response was to invoke the Ministerial Code and dismiss four of the five ‘rebels’. The only reason he did not also sack the fifth was that he had already resigned.
Another more recent example involved the vote to authorise Britain’s participation, alongside the USA, in the Iraq invasion of 2003.
However, on this occasion the extent of the backbench rebellion was so widespread that the Conservative vote was still needed to rescue Tony Blair’s Labour government from collapse.
Admittedly, it may be facetious to draw an analogy between that divisive vote in particular – echoes of which are still being felt in the UK’s ongoing Chilcot enquiry – and the internal rumblings of dissent hitherto heard in the Nationalist Party backbench in our thankfully peaceful country.
But if a comparison may be forced onto these two scenarios, in the same way as this unplanned parliamentary ‘reform’ was forced onto the entire country, the conclusion would sound something like this.
You know something is seriously wrong with the state of your country, when its governments starts taking serious decisions with only its own survival in mind.


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