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Editorial: The cabinet is not a jobs centre


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In a parliamentary democracy, the cabinet of ministers has quite a plateful of tasks and functions. It is the ultimate decision-making body, is responsible for governing the country, draws up and implements policies, manages the economy, oversees government operations and ensures national security and foreign relations.

What it is not, and should never be, is a jobs centre run by the prime minister to ensure as many members of parliament as possible are wholly submissive to his whims.

That would be in clear breach of the constitution, which lays down that the cabinet “shall have the general direction and control of the government of Malta and shall be collectively responsible to parliament”.

In a report late last year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had deemed “the practice in Malta to appoint backbencher MPs to positions in government departments, boards and commissions” as “particularly problematic”.

Elected officials, it observed, play a critical accountability role over the actions of the government and it is their duty to hold the executive accountable for the way public money is spent and public policies determined.

Now, if giving a government job to an MP risks diluting the effectiveness of parliament’s powers to oversee the government’s performance, this is certainly more the case when a deputy is given a cabinet post.

Let’s face it, Robert Abela is not the first prime minister to seek ways and means to have MPs under his thumb. Statistically, though, he excels.

Only last January, he regaled Malta with the largest cabinet in its history: 27, including himself. That was one more than the set-up he had opted for when he became prime minister in 2020 and two more than his 2022 election cabinet.

An exercise conducted by Times of Malta had established that the 27-member cabinet costs the exchequer almost €16 million a year, the bill rising by about €780,000 over the previous week.

Whenever the issue of whether the country needs such a big cabinet resurfaces, it is inevitably argued, by the official side, of course, that all the portfolios were essential to ensure the government performs up to expectations. Another reason also mentioned is that such a line-up is necessary in view of Malta’s EU commitments. Both arguments are debatable. In fact, when Times of Malta looked into the matter it had found that only Spain, Sweden and Italy had more ministers in cabinet than Malta.

Furthermore, a decision just made by Abela himself proves beyond any doubt that at least some of the members of cabinet are not indispensable. After Chris Fearne decided to resign in the fallout of the hospitals deal inquiry, he was not replaced. His ministerial responsibilities were merely assumed by the Office of the Prime Minister.

Large cabinets are usually necessitated by clear and specific demands.

A federal government, for example, would have to handle national responsibilities as well as coordinate policies and duties with state administrations.

Countries having a wide range of economic sectors, comprehensive social services and substantial international obligations are also likely to need more ministers in office.

Coalition governments might also have a bigger cabinet for obvious reasons.

However, Malta cannot be considered to fall in any of those categories, at least, not so far. The cabinet ought to consist of just a handful of people with the necessary grey matter to take the country forward. And the remaining government MPs should be backbenchers keeping the administration in check, offering constructive criticism and representing their constituents.

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