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Auberge de Castille prison

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi comes across as a man sure of himself, and who knows the answers. A man who will not bow his head easily to circumstances and prepares himself well for events, including adversity. It was the latter characteristic which came to the fore last Tuesday, when he tinkered with the portfolios of his cabinet team.

Sections of the media projected the changes as a reshuffle. They were anything but that. A cabinet reshuffle involves moving ministers (and parliamentary secretaries) around, probably axing some and bringing in new blood. The Prime Minister did none of that. He avoided touching people like the plague.

The whole political world knows why, even though he said with an impish smile that nobody forecast his moves correctly. True enough. I for one did not think that Auberge de Castille had become such a prison for Lawrence Gonzi. A prison where he enjoys a lot of freedom, certainly. Yet not the freedom to carve out his Cabinet however suits the country best.

In plain language, the Cabinet is not functioning well. If it were, the Nationalists would not be so deeply in the doldrums. Gonzi's critics attribute the slump in popularity to the Prime Minister. He has his failings, yet I think it is the overall management team that is mostly to blame. Gonzi may feel that he is putting that right by setting up a high-powered strategy and coordinating unit in his Castille den.

I doubt that will serve as enough of a good alternative to a straightforward and full-blooded reshuffle. Another prime minister once told that he spent most of his time wiping the backside of his team. A prime minister must do some of that, yes. He is the real father and confessor of his colleagues. Nevertheless, if he has to do it too much it is high time for the axe to be brought out.

Gonzi did none of that last Tuesday. The only departure was the one that brought the sorry spectacle about, the resignation of John Dalli to take up his Commissioner post in Brussels now that the European Parliament has approved Jose Manuel Barroso's cabinet. Otherwise, everybody stays put. Joe Cassar, promoted to Health Minister as widely expected, was the only nudge. His promotion was the most significant confirmation of Gonzi's failure to do anything much.

For if Cassar deserves a ministerial position so, very obviously, do Mario de Marco, Jason Azzopardi and Chris Said. It is unclear why they too did not receive a higher nomenclature. For nomenclature is what one is really talking about. I commend the Prime Minister's resolve to retain a lean Cabinet. I had recommended that to his predecessor, and before that within the Labour Party before the 1996 to 98 ministerial team was appointed. Altogether we have traditionally deployed too many ministers.

The excess is also evident now. For to minimise it by dubbing some appointments 'parliamentary secretary' is to kid oneself. The three parliamentary secretaries mentioned had all been given additional direct additions to what is termed their portfolio. Correct - for they aren't parliamentary secretaries to help out their ministers. They have direct spheres of responsibility. Their responsibilities were practically doubled through Tuesday's reallocation of duties.

In the process the Prime Minister did away with one parliamentary secretary post. He did not do so for the sake of leanness. It was simply an exercise in damage limitation. The government is damaged on its backbench flank. The unrest there is palpable. Had Gonzi made one single appointment from the backbenches, a number of others, say four at least, would have been tempted to rebel.

They may not have been tempted to vote against the government. But they would have made their deeply embedded grudges clearer still. Gonzi challenged circumstances by implicitly admitting that the Prime Minister's office has become his prison. Hot rumour flying around as early as Tuesday night after the duties shuffle had been completed said that Giovanna Debono simply would not hear of it when Gonzi indicated to her he wanted to change her portfolio, probably from that of Gozo to Social Policy.

Both Gonzi and Debono will probably deny that. If so they had better persuade their ranks first - that is where the strong rumour started. As it turned out the Prime Minister attached Social Policy to Dolores Christina, who remains responsible too for the gargantuan portfolio of education. She did not even get a parliamentary secretary to help her out. The lady has a broad back and proven ability. She will not complain, yet the country may feel short-changed by that move.

Similarly with the Finance Minister. Gonzi took responsibility for the Water Services Corporation and Enemalta away from Austin Gatt, who in the process appears diminished. He did not really explain why - the OPM suggestion that it is Tonio Fenech who, as Finance Minister, deals with tariffs and such like is laughable.

Both in the context of the fact that Gatt has been vociferous and articulate enough in dealing with both parastatal entities. And also because by the OPM's lame reasoning there need be only two ministers - that of Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, for they are involved with every ministry.

Tuesday night was not the night of a short knife, let alone of long knives as required. It displayed the sad sight of a Prime Minister working from his Auberge de Castille prison according to a plan that admitted he has little or no freedom in which to operate. I still do not believe that this government will fall, or that Gonzi will call an early election.

But with a Prime Minister held hostage by circumstance the country cannot get the strong leadership it requires more than ever before.

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