Undoubtedly, as primus inter pares, it is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to decide if, how, and when to make a cabinet reshuffle. He is in the best position to evaluate each individual minister’s performance and delivery, identify any shortcomings and lowering of standards, and somehow address them. But this does not mean that we are not entitled to comment on the importance, significance, and timing of a cabinet reshuffle.
Cabinet reshuffles in Malta are neither common nor rare. Perhaps the one that easily springs to mind is that of November 2020, when four new ministers were appointed and three others had their ministries changed in a reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Robert Abela. In November, two years later, rumours were rife that a reshuffle was envisaged following equally rife rumours that Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne is about to be nominated for the post of European Commissioner. Of course, the Prime Minister shot down such rumours outright.
Historically, cabinet reshuffles have occurred intermittently from 1932 to date. Most of them were forced on Prime Ministers either because of the death of a serving minister, a resignation, or a promotion to another prestigious post. A reshuffle is more likely to occur in cabinets with many ministers. Of course, whenever serving ministers are reshuffled, no one expects prime ministers to explicitly state or admit that the move was necessary because some ministers underperformed, did not perform at all, or were profusely perceived by the public to be corrupt or involved in shady dealings.
Cabinet reshuffles can be quite significant transformations when ministers change responsabilities or leave their post, and when ministerial roles, or even entire departments, are created or removed. Moving ministers around can be a way of indicating a government’s priorities. Adding new ministerial roles or changing who can attend cabinet is another way of doing this, as is making changes to ministerial portfolios.
Pushing the refresh button
Reshuffles are a way to avoid appearing stale. Refreshing the government through such a change can be an attractive option when a government’s popularity is dwindling, as Robert Abela’s seems to be at the moment.
Let’s face it, it has long been a common perception that more than one minister has failed to deliver while others have not performed to expectations. How much longer could our prime minister have continued to feel sensible about sticking to his guns and resisting reshuffles, except when forced upon him?
A cabinet reshuffle is rarely, if ever, simply about refreshing the ranks of the government with new and upcoming talent, rewarding outstanding performance, and so on. This exalted and high-minded explanation is often given but, in my view, rarely wholly truthfully. I am, however, firmly of the view that ministers should, as a rule, be drawn from the ranks of Parliament and a pool of people with a track record of service and proven skills in this place. I am dubious about the notion that Parliament is so lacking in talent that it is necessary to go repeatedly outside it to meet the needs of a good government.
The best possible executive team
The main reason for a reshuffle is to allow the Prime Minister to try to ensure he has the best possible team of ministers. Ideally, it should be about rewarding ability and performance. In reality, other factors come into play, such as the need to balance the government politically and give promising newcomers a chance to prove themselves.
If a minister is left in a job for too long, he or she can become stale unless they have a particular passion and special interest in the policy area they cover. I am afraid we only had a few with such passion and interest.
We live in an environment where ministers expect to be judged on immediate impact rather than longer-term delivery, so it is inevitably harder to sustain necessary policies that have potentially difficult or adverse media consequences in the short term.
A reshuffle is always difficult for any prime minister. Refusing to lose ministers under attack in a way that would probably not have been true in the past also has its difficulties, as the current Prime Minister has experienced. It is the prerogative power of the Prime Minister to recommend to the President the appointment, dismissal, and acceptance of resignations of ministers and to determine the membership of Cabinet. He is responsible for the overall organisation of the executive and the allocation of functions between ministers.
The timing was right
The Prime Minister is the leader of the government and, therefore, responsible and accountable to Parliament for the appointments he makes. Perhaps the time was ripe now for a reshuffle that could lead to fewer ministers treating their departments as personal fiefdoms.
With this reshuffle, Robert Abela recognised that the time had come to improve the output and performance of his cabinet team as well as to relist the priorities that will catapult the country forward. Needless to say, if he is to be presumed to be a prudent prime minister, he would have held consultations with relevant individuals to avoid dissent.
This timely reshuffle was a preemptive attempt to limit future problems with cabinet management. It was time for a new cabinet minister or two and for one parliamentary secretary or two to get a mission statement from the prime minister.
I am confident that time will prove Robert Abela right and wise in deciding to reshuffle his cabinet of ministers and parliamentary secretaries at this juncture.