Robert Abela’s office is making a big song and dance about a “clean up” in the government ranks. In a story in yesterday The Sunday Times they made a claim about removing an unquantified and unspecified number of former OPM staffers representing this as some sort of cull.
Of course, this is a load of bull and it is clear that Robert Abela’s staff is just as reliant on people’s lack of awareness of how things work to push through all sorts of spin as the staff that belonged to his predecessor did.
The fact is there is a reason why people appointed “on trust” are described that way. Personal staff of a government minister are appointed on the basis of a contract that finds legal words for the conventional “service at the pleasure of the minister”. Even while a minister that has appointed you to their staff is still in office, your contract provides you with no safeguards if the minister decides they no longer want you anywhere near them. There is no “unlawful dismissal” from a minister’s staff. They don’t need to give you a reason for firing you. They don’t need to have a reason to fire you. All that needs to happen is for them to decide they no longer trust you.
On that basis alone once a minister leaves office it is assumed their successor doesn’t trust you and they will have other people they trust to replace you. Even when a minister is redeployed in a cabinet reshuffle their former staff is disbanded on the assumption that if they trusted you to help them run education, it does not necessarily mean they are going to trust you to help them with agriculture.
When a general election comes your last day of paid work is election’s eve, your last day in the service of your minister. After that if you’ve been handpicked from elsewhere in the public sector you report for duty in the place of work you had before you joined the minister’s staff. If you were recruited directly from outside the public sector you’re unemployed. If your party wins the election, if your party leader is confirmed as prime minister, if the prime minister reappoints the minister that trusted you before to their cabinet, you’re still unemployed. If the phone doesn’t ring you’re still unemployed and you’re not owed a phone call.
That’s what being “trusted” means. It means you are by definition temporary. The safeguards that apply to everyone else in the country that guarantee permanent employment to anyone employed on a casual but continuous basis for more than 4 years, do not apply to you.
When Lawrence Gonzi took over from Eddie Fenech Adami he brought his own staff to his office. No one who worked on Eddie Fenech Adami’s staff made any assumptions about their future. There was never any suggestion of corruption or of involvement in a murder or its cover up. They had done nothing to breach trust with the public. But they understood from the day they signed up that another prime minister would want their own team to work with.
Robert Abela was under no obligation to retain any one of his predecessor’s staffers. Nor did any of his ministers have any obligation to retain any of their own or any of their colleagues’ former staffers.
It was a fresh start for everyone.
There was no heroic ‘clean up’. There was a regular transition of power that has happened in this country with every cabinet reshuffle, every general election and every resignation of every prime minister ever.
Now if Robert Abela is going to provide any useful information here are two questions he should consider answering:
Firstly, how many people on the former prime minister’s staff joined the public sector as permanent employees after they had been first recruited as persons of trust? The question is relevant because it would be good to find out just how many lifetime sinecures we are going to have to pay for, for several decades yet for people Robert Abela has been pretending “to clean up”. Of course, Robert Abela should not just give us a number. We should know who these people are.
Secondly but perhaps more importantly, how many people on the former prime minister’s staff have now left public employment altogether and who are they? Have they been paid transitional and termination allowances?
Given the insecurity of employment as persons of trust it is only right that employees who can be and are discarded and forced into unemployment overnight have some form of parachute that can ease the pain of losing their job. I can vouch for that personally.
But it does not make sense to pay termination and transitional allowances to people who have left in disgrace. Therefore, paying Joseph Muscat a termination benefit is unacceptable. It’s like Renault-Nissan paying Carlos Ghosn severance pay after he was arrested for financial misconduct. They owed him 30 million euro for forcing him out early because of the embarrassment he brought on the group. They didn’t pay it.
But Robert Abela wants anything but a clean break with his predecessor so the question has to be asked. Has a termination benefit been paid to Keith Schembri? And to whom else?