The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

Alfred Sant's second phase

Noel Grima Tuesday, 15 June 2021, 11:37 Last update: about 2 months ago

Confessions of a European Maltese. The Middle Years 1975-1992 Author: Alfred Sant. Publisher: SKS (Sensiela Kotba Socjalisti) / 2021. Pages: 758pp

In 2003 I had been one of the speakers at the launch of Dr Sant's first volume of recollections and autobiography of this name.

There were with me at the launch, at what was then called St James Cavalier, Marie Benoit and Sharon Ellul Bonici along with Dr Sant.

The EU accession referendum was approaching and the campaign was incandescent with the PN being completely for and Labour proposing the Partnership alternative.

That book, as its title indicates, aimed to show that the Maltese, as Dr Sant did, could be perfectly Maltese and perfectly European without necessarily being in an EU member state.

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This volume does not aim to prove anything as the first one tried to. It continues the account of Dr Sant's life from leaving Brussels and the negotiations with the EEC, as it was called then, and Malta on the Association Agreement until the 1992 election which was to lead to the resignation of Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and later to Dr Sant's election as party leader and Leader of the Opposition - but that part is hopefully for the next volume.

Sant's first step was to be accepted by the University of Boston for a Masters. First he had to get used to the very cold weather and to get used to the American way of doing things and also to the American way of university tuition.

All this was no big deal for him and, in fact, in his second year he crossed the street and registered at Harvard Business School from where he would get his doctorate.

His area of expertise was the management of economic assets owned by the State on a liberal, American way, as had been attempted in Ghana (Ivory Coast) under Nkrumah.

He was used to staying on his own, for example at Christmas time and spent time profitably reading novels, learning Russian, etc.

In summer, he came back to Malta and caught up with friends here. After his first year at Harvard he looked around to find an opportunity to practise his learning and work for his doctorate and he was inspired to see if he could do that in Malta.

He approached Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, who he knew fleetingly from his years in Brussels, and Dom, never rejecting an offer of help, especially at low cost, approved.

The year was 1977 and Mintoff had just won the general election, following which he set up the Ministry of Parastatal and People's Industries. Mintoff sent Sant there. The minister was Freddie Micallef, uprooted from his previous post at the Ministry of Agriculture and rather ill at ease in the new role. Of the ministry's staff Sant mentions George Carbone and one senses a rather cool relationship.

Sant had got his first interview with Mintoff before the election. Lino Spiteri and others helped him. Then time passed and he had to go to the US and still no word from Dom. Then one day he received a message from Philip Muscat passing on a message from the PM and adding a wish/order to bring a top man to take over the Polytechnic. The letter also referred to a coming reform in the educational sector, which was the first time Sant heard of this.

Sant's offer was accepted - he was assigned to MPPI. He made some significant discoveries - the minister's team existed to service the demand from the minister's Mosta constituency with Anglu Fenech, later GWU secretary general, at its head.

Sant was not given a room, not even a desk and he sat at the conference table and read the few files the new ministry had. He soon found out that most of the companies set up by the Labour government through political deals with non-aligned countries and China were on life support and facing closure. There were some worthy exceptions - Air Malta for instance, then making profits.

Not all government investments were under MPPI and this led to memorable turf wars that Mintoff periodically had to intervene and knock heads together, mostly by scolding the minister who was against Lorry Sant, then Mintoff's protégé.

Meanwhile things were heating up in the country - the Nationalist Party, undeterred by the drubbing at the election, was gaining in courage, led by Eddie Fenech Adami. New organisations were born and industrial actions launched.

In this context I would like to write about something that Dr Sant writes about and about my share in it.

Round about that time a book appeared, written by an Egyptian professor from Australia, M. M. Metwally, spending some time at the university in Malta. The book was published in 1977. Sant writes that the book was crammed with tables, figures and equations that most people did not understand about the Maltese economy between 1954 and 1974.

It concluded that manufacturing was not making a "big enough" impact on unemployment, import substitution would necessarily slow down and that between 1971 and 1974 (that is, under Mintoff) there had been a deliberate policy to ensure that the labour intensive industries in Malta remained competitive by curtailing workers' income.

With remarkable prescience the book argued that Malta would better concentrate on promoting services in the fields of finance, education and residence open for wealthy foreigners rather than on manufacturing.

Well, today I can reveal, and boast, that this book, which helped inspire the subsequent industrial strife over the next years, saw the light of day thanks to my efforts and those of my colleagues at Il-Hajja Press.

At Il-Hajja Press we did not have offset when the opportunity to print it was offered to us "because the others (which we understood to include The Times) are afraid to print it".

What we did was to turn the tables, figures and equations into line drawings and carefully put them in place in the letterpress text.

Thus, a small and outdated printing press foxed an almighty administration that thought the election victory had made it invincible.

By 1978 Alfred Sant was still working at the Ministry of Parastatal and People’s Industries (MPPI) as part of his thesis work for the Harvard Business School.

This provided him with a unique insight into the inner workings of the Mintoff administration and also the real state of the “people’s” investments.

From his “perch” at MPPI, Sant so described how the Mintoff administration (mis-)managed the running of the economy: the PM would float his half formed (sometimes half-baked) ideas for change, genuinely expecting those present to react with counter-suggestions but these would be too afraid or too uninterested. Taking their silence for approval, he would publicly announce his intentions causing a massive furore.

The problem then would be the implementation, where many times, the people who were appointed had no real idea what reform they were expected to implement or tweaked them in unexpected ways. Hence, the huge controversies over for example, the reform of the university, the issues with the bankers and the civil servants.

Till then, Sant was a confirmed left-winger, was not yet a member of the Labour Party, even though he was told to attend a Socialist International assembly in Senegal. His friends came from the Left fringe and included Evarist Bartolo and his wife Gillian, Mario Vella and the person who was to become his wife, Mary Darmanin.

In a way, one can empathise with Sant. He did not come from any dynasty as some people are. He studied at top of the range universities in the US and, being an idealist, though Left-winger, wanted to introduce US management systems in the parastatal sector.

A cynic would have told him he was wasting his time. At the ministry the top civil servants were engaged in a feud that could not be solved.

And not all the government investments were under the MPPI. The Malta Development Corporation held jealously to those it managed and resisted intrusion. And poor Minister Micallef time and again was cruelly tongue-lashed by Mintoff in the big meetings he loved to hold.

At the end, in late 1977, fed up with what he was seeing, Sant wrote a long report and sent it straight to Mintoff, bypassing the ministerial structure. The end result was predictable – he was called to a Castille meeting where Mintoff “harangued” him.

Essentially, he was asking for a business plan for every firm, recruitment of the right people and funds from the Ministry of Finance to tide over the rough parts. This latter bit was anathema in the room. Mintoff asked for a further report. Sant was not even supported by MPPI. His only support, he says, was Michael Mallia, sent in punishment to MPPI from the Foreign Ministry for striking. “Our” Michael Mallia, later for a long time, an SPL director.

Almost concurrently, that’s Mintoff for you, Sant was saddled with the foundry project. In Mintoff’s plan, a central foundry was the next step to create a sustainable manufacturing base.

The foundry project was to bedevil Sant’s future years. It was quite unsustainable, even when downscaled. It was one of Mintoff’s whitest elephants.

There were some rare success stories, such as CIM, which landed a huge contract with Levy jeans, but there were more stories of failure, such as the two factories which manufactured  Chinese carpets while negotiations with a French company to take over the John Baker tools factory found out that the French wanted to offload their outmoded machinery.

In short, MPPI was wound up. It was time for Sant to move. With inputs from Lino Spiteri, he was introduced to the accounting and audit firm Norman Spiteri and Co. Thus was born Medina Consulting Group, with himself as the CEO and the sole employee, paid Lm3,000 a year.

That was also the time when he moved to Mosta and, to thank Anglu Fenech who helped him find the place, he became an official MLP card-carrying member.

Medina began operations from the NS & Co. offices at Casa Leone in Floriana with Norman Spiteri, John Bonello and Roderick Chalmers among his colleagues.

He first undertook some extensive research through meetings with the key figures in the private sector, thus correlating with his previous research on the public sector.

He toured and met the key figures in the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Industries, Bank of Valletta, Mid-Med Bank, etc. They seemed, as I see it, more interested in getting him to become a member or of contributing to their magazines than anything else.

On the one hand, the most pessimistic on the prospects of management consultancy in Malta was Manwel Ellul, then head of research at the Central Bank. On the other hand, the most encouraging reaction came from Chris Calascione from the Investment Finance Bank, who however soon left to become a Benedictine monk.

Still, contracts for Medina were nowhere to be found. Through Norman Spiteri a meeting was held with Archbishop Mercieca to see if Medina could do a study at Il-Hajja. I was still working there at that time and none of us was informed about this. Sant priced his offer at the high end and was outbid by someone who priced his offer at a very low end.

Slowly, work for Medina dried up except for Prosan becoming Medisan. Slowly, Sant found himself getting sucked into the MDC net.

His sponsor, so to speak, was once again Lino Spiteri. At MDC he met Joe Cassar (Marsovin) who was chairman but was very sick, (Sant was in fact brought in as deputy chairman) and two senior officials, Noel Zarb Adami and Vince Farrugia; Sant was brought in to moderate their zeal.

At that time under Mintoff, Malta was managed by the Gang of Four (from the Chinese template) – Marsovin Cassar, Bertie Mizzi, Edgar Mizzi (the AG kept on from Borg Olivier time) and Maurice Abela, head of the Foreign Office.

Next, Sant found out he was not going to be the sole deputy chairman. He was joined by Sonny Borg from Bortex also as deputy chairman.

That was how Mintoff worked – he loved to surround himself with successful loyal people from the private sector.

Reading the book it is amazing the range of companies with government investment in which Sant got involved, not least the backroom work which led to Mintoff’s notorious Gavino Gulia Square for the dockyard workers in which he scolded them for not having “bocci tal-laham” (balls). The reform was never carried out.

The crisis in the textile industry put the government in an awkward position for any decision it would take would negatively impact on one or other venture.

There were also issues like SGS, brought to Malta and still a resounding success, and also the foundry, a failure since conception.

By the time of the 1981 election, Sant was almost at the end of this phase of his life. He decided to leave MDC when Joe Grima, a suspicious and over-ambitious man, became his minister.

But Sant’s luck held. Over the previous months he had come nearer to the Labour Party machine, going to the cavernous Macina for the first time in his life. Here his sponsors so to speak were Marie-Louise Coleiro and Anton Cassar. Sant headed the small Communications department and created Sensiela Kotba Socjalisti whose publications he used to sell at mass meetings. Those were the years following the freak 1981 election results and the Nationalist Opposition had the government on the defensive.

Sant rocketed: he was elected to the Party executive and then to president of the party. He found himself at the centre of the Party during the momentous events that followed, as Mintoff left and KMB took over, as the clash with the Church hardened, as schools were closed, the Curia ransacked, battle at Tal-Barrani risked total confrontation, etc.

He was not elected to Parliament in 1987 but co-opted to replace Joe Sciberras who had died. He thus became a backbencher. This gave him more time to write, including play. Then in the 1992 election, which Labour lost, he was elected at the last count, pipping Carmen Sant by a mere handful of votes.

 

Mintoff’s autobiography ends in 1940. Sant’s latest book takes us to 1992. Though riveting and fair, one looks forward to the next instalment with his controversial election as Party leader, his victory in 1996 and his defeat in 1998, and of course the whole EU campaign.

 


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