Shining critical light on Cabinet
The less secrecy, the better. It should be required only for rare cases. The practice to keep Cabinet papers, as well as various other records of government activties secret for a number of years is one followed in the British model of government. One can understand it in case of national security, otherwise there seems to be little purpose for it. Governments represent the people. The people have a right to know what their governments have been doing.
The Maltese authorities were right to make Cabinet minutes available to public scrutiny, though some years’ gap has been retained. Aside from the people’s right to know, that is of some help to historians as they try to broaden their understanding of not just what and how things happened but also why.
Cabinet minutes, to the extent that they have been kept, have not been mislaid or deliberately destroyed, will not give the full picture. They tend to record bare decisions, with few if any details of what led up to them. So it will be interesting to see what our clutch of historians make out of the minutes soon to be passed to the national archives, where they and others will be able to access them.
They cover periods within the living memory of quite a number of us. Historians and others may be able to piece out whether perception of why certain things were done or ignored tally with the reality of the moment.
It appears that Cabinet minutes of the Labour era of the 1970s and 1980s will not be available, at least not in full. Some minutes were kept by Cabinet secrertaries. Whether they will appear in the form of full minutes or bare notes remains to be seen.
In my personal experience as a Labour Cabinet minister, minutes were not a highlight. Unlike in the Alfred Sant period of office, in the Dom Mintoff years Cabinet meetings were not prominent. The Prime Minister at the time preferred to call ministers or a small number of them for specific meetings, surrounded by his advisers. Invariably, he did most of the talking. He did call the Cabinet on occasion.
The textbook and practical power which makes a prime minister first among equals is his right to appoint and change the Cabinet and his power to set the Cabinet agenda.
In Mintoff’s case, the power was not in the form of an agenda. He set that with his private secretary every late night before winding up, telling him what to organise and whom to summon for the morrow’s business.
One Cabinet meeting which he did set with unanncounced intent proved to be an attempt by him to roast various ministers who he thought were not held on or straining at the leash enough. I’m sure no minutes were kept. He ended up with receiving a mouthful from the first minister he picked upon and walking out of the meeting.
Two Cabinet minutes of meetings I would like to see, but are unlikely to be recorded, are the first Cabinet Mintoff called after his major reshuffle in 1983. I recall he and I got on much worse than we usiually did due to my resentment at having been removed from the Ministry of Finance.
The other is of the meeting Prime Minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici called after the shocking killing of Raymond Caruana. It was a sombre and historic meeting. It led to the Cabinet decision to put forward proposals to amend the Constitution to ensure that a party which got an overall majority of valid electoral votes gained the right to form the government through a corrective mechanism.
In the absence of such minutes, we have had to go by oral history, with not much told by the dwindling and ageing survivers of the era, the redoubtable Wistin Abela being the last to depart. I suppose what matters, though, is the end result.
Mintoff never forgot that Cabinet meeting where he got a tongue-lashing when he least expected it. And the Constitution was amended to ensure real majority rule.
Moving on the machinery of government has become more open. There is a growing attitude by the Opposition of the day to demand more accountability from the government. And that tends to be reciprocated by the tendency of the government of the day to make statements to the House of Representatives on ongoing issues which, nowadays, are increasingly dominated by matters arising out of our membership of the EU.
The media too have become more insistent in chasing their own leads and demanding comment from the ministers’ and parliamentary secretaries’ portfolio they point to.
All that is as it should be: the governing part of the political class should be held accountable for its actions as they take place not after it can no longer be called upon to give satisfaction, even if it tries to hide behind the excuse of retirement.
Whatever our good and bad deeds, the actions of all those of us who have served, serve or will serve in governing the country remain of relevance well beyond the time we have left politics and this earth. If only to provide examples for the emerging political class to guide itself by, whether in doing the right thing or avoiding mistakes.