Ten years ago, our public discourse was exercised by the spectre of an ‘Establishment’, flexing its muscle behind the scenes. Today, in mainstream commentary it has largely been replaced by another, a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’.
The topic was ignited by the then finance minister, Edward Scicluna, when he told the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry that he was powerless before the modus operandi of the Muscat government, given that all the key decisions were, according to him, taken by a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’.
The other ministers who subsequently testified before the inquiry denied its existence. They said Cabinet decided matters, even if on matters of principle, not details.
Still, parts of the media have continued to show great interest, with one editorial opining that it indicated a disturbing system of governance that rendered the official Cabinet powerless.
Even the judges leading the inquiry seem to think the ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ matters — to go by the number of questions that they keep asking about it.
It’s all a red herring. There is nothing wrong or illegitimate about a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’. Many heads of government have them. Eddie Fenech Adami had his, and so did, by most accounts, Alfred Sant.
A ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ is simply an inner circle of advisers that a prime minister or president routinely turns to. It is informal. It has no power of formal decision-making.
Ronald Reagan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair all had ‘Kitchen Cabinets’, whose members were well known. Their influence might have been resented by many Cabinet ministers, but no one questioned the democratic legitimacy of Wilson having (say) Marcia Falkender, Thatcher having (say) Alan Walters, or Blair having Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson.
Because, in the end, no inner circle of advisers can divest Cabinet ministers of their formal rights of debate and interrogation of what comes before them. If Scicluna says that the ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ made him feel powerless, that says more about him than about ‘Kitchen Cabinets’.
When the UK’s finance minister, Nigel Lawson, had had enough of the influence of Alan Walters, he resigned. When Robin Cook had had enough of the reckless steering towards war in Iraq, he resigned.
And resignation is not the only possible answer. The published diaries and memoirs of the UK’s senior politicians are full of accounts of private discussions and alliances made to thwart or mitigate the determination of their prime minister. They conferred with each other and built alliances. That is what made them men and women of substance.
With respect to Malta, therefore, any talk of a ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ is only relevant for how we assess the ministers who were not part of it. We assess the legacy of the likes of Louis Grech, George Vella, Evarist Bartolo, Leo Brincat, and Scicluna himself, on the basis of what they did not bring themselves to do when, for example, the confidence vote in Konrad Mizzi came up in parliament.
It seems they all thought he should go. But they never bothered to take a joint stand. That’s on them, not any inner circle.
When Muscat’s ministers say that they assented to matters of principle, then that too is part of their personal legacy. For a long time, before 2013, they promoted the idea that Labour had an alternative energy policy that it kept under wraps. Now they have testified that they only had a presentation from Mizzi just before the 2013 election.
If they voted for the Vitals Global Healthcare deal in principle, then they voted for the effective privatisation of part of our healthcare system — despite having denounced the very idea for long years previously.
The same ministers who voted for these projects and for passport sales included politicians who spent years denouncing the EU as a project for the takeover of Malta. Yet here they were not raising any serious questions about the takeover, by secret owners or foreign powers, of critical strategic sectors of the country.
However, when it comes to assessing the mode of governance, it’s not the ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ that matters, whether it existed or not.
What matters is the appearance of a cabal of decision-makers circumventing proper accountability, transparency and the public interest — in the interests of setting up a kleptocracy.
To exist, such a cabal has to go beyond Cabinet. To succeed it needed to reach deep into the civil service, agencies and boards that did its bidding, creating what is in effect a parallel administration under the guise of ‘persons of trust’. It appears that it made alliances even with members of the country’s economic establishment.
The takeover of the country’s public interest by private interests is ultimately both economic and political. Whoever owns the strategic economic sectors ultimately governs the country, irrespective of which Party wins the general elections.
In this respect, the inquiry is focused on the key issue. If these really were the stakes, then it becomes easier to see that Caruana Galizia’s potential future revelations made her supremely relevant, irrespective of her political isolation.