According to his own Wikipedia page, Edward Zammit Lewis, the justice minister, is “one of the few technocratic ministers”. Let me guess: the readers who have overwhelmingly voted for permitting unelected technocrats to be appointed cabinet ministers, in this newspaper’s online poll, didn’t vote for more Zammit Lewises.
But it’s good to remember that “technocrat” is an elastic term, especially in the mouths of politicians. That offending Wiki page speaks of a “few” technocratic ministers. Who on earth are, or were, the others?
Konrad Mizzi? He was certainly sold to us as a technocrat in 2013. He was continually defended as an expert “doer”. He sure did us in.
Louis Grech? He had a career in top management and a stint as MEP behind him back in 2013, when he looked gravely into the TV cameras and told us a Labour government would be a “quality leap”. In 2016, he nodded gravely again, and applauded, when Mizzi addressed Labour delegates soon after his secret Panama company was revealed by Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Edward Scicluna? Another career in academe, consultancy and chairmanships, plus a stint as MEP. He was a semi-detached finance minister who was ineffectual at resisting the rot (or, as he called it, the “kitchen cabinet”).
Or perhaps it’s Clyde Caruana, economist, former head of the national employment agency and now finance minister only because he was co-opted into parliament at Robert Abela’s request. If Caruana is a technocrat, he’s one who’s not resisting his government’s profligate turbo-patronage and cronyism, problems that will burden us down the road.
Maybe it’s unfair to saddle Abela with a definition of technocrat that’s been stretched by someone else.
We have had the online poll in the first place because Abela himself broached the topic in his address to the Youth Parliament last week. So let’s look at what Abela does when he needs technocrats.
The prime minister asking us to consider appointing unelected technocrats to cabinet is the same man who appointed Scicluna to the technocratic position of Central Bank governor. He’s confirmed John Mamo as chair of the Malta Financial Services Authority.
Both men stand disgraced by their handling of scandals that did much damage to Malta’s finance industry: scandals they had the authority to scotch. The fact they stay on is itself damaging to Malta’s reputation.
So much for Abela’s standard for technocrats.
Does Abela feel he needs another technocrat in cabinet? He doesn’t seem to think so. He had the opportunity to co-opt one but passed it up. When Gavin Giulia was elected in a casual election, he immediately resigned to make way for someone Abela preferred. It was Oliver Scicluna, the chair of the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability. He is not a technocrat and he was not made minister.
We’ve been greylisted because of a catastrophic lack of political backbone not technical competence– Ranier Fsadni
But shouldn’t we consider changing the law for the sake of future governments? It wouldn’t be a minor change. It’s a change to our very system, the Westminster model, which insists that cabinet ministers should be MPs (or from an upper house, if there is one). If we’re going to change, let’s be aware of the likely consequences.
We’re not even out of a debate about how to dilute the powers of prime ministers and strengthen those of parliament. Giving prime ministers the right to appoint non-MPs to the cabinet is effectively strengthening them by awarding powers that are more presidential.
Prime ministers will have a more dominant position in cabinet. It takes a bold, self-confident technocrat to grandstand a prime minister; he or she will always be reminded they’re unelected. If they play the expertise card, they’ll be trumped by the ace of accountability.
Elsewhere in Europe, it’s under special conditions that technocrats bring a legitimate authority of their own. It’s usually to bolster the credibility of a government in which domestic and international trust has been seriously eroded.
Technocrats are often brought in for a limited mandate during a crisis (say, to take decisions politicians are evading, like raising taxes and cutting spending). Even when their appointment is routine, they’re usually engineers, central bankers, economists, academics or high civil servants. They’re all recruited because they know-how to operate the institutional machinery to get something done.
But unless they’re highly political themselves, or operating in a major crisis, the technocrats will tend to be subordinate to the big politicians. Because they’re high-fliers, they are unused to bruising failure (which is, however, routine in politics). Their skills do not lie in mobilising support, winning political fights and knowing what voters are ready to tolerate from an expert.
None of this shuts down the debate on technocrats. But let’s be clear-eyed. Don’t expect of technocrats what they cannot deliver.
They will not be able to stand up to the politics of patronage because, if they do, they’ll be told it’s easy for someone who’s unelected to talk. It…