The Malta Independent 6 December 2022, Tuesday
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TMID Editorial - AUM: A new meaning to the term ‘business friendly’

Monday, 18 July 2022, 08:46 Last update: about 6 months ago

The documents and emails between government and the American University of Malta revealed on Sunday by this newsroom show precisely why this country needs a law on lobbying and a transparency register.

In fact, it shows why most of the recommendations made by the OECD last week need to be implemented as soon as possible. These include a better code of ethics for ministers and MPs, a stronger Standards Committee and clear rules on the so-called ‘revolving door’ policies.

The documents published by The Malta Independent on Sunday shed new light on how Joseph Muscat’s administration rolled out the red carpet for Sadeen’s AUM, and how the lines between government and business were completely blurred.

We revealed how the government, through confidential side agreements, promised AUM heaven on earth: from pledging to send it students to help it reach full capacity, to promising it would help expedite planning permits and student visas, to creating schemes that would “directly” benefit Sadeen.

Furthermore, the Office of the Prime Minister stepped in to directly take care of the struggling university’s damage control in the face of what were described as ‘media attacks.’

In fact, Castille took it upon itself to handle AUM’s public relations by writing letters on its behalf.

It also emerged that the government was discussing with AUM the possibility of handing over the Casino di Venezia, a historic palazzo located on a prime piece of real estate in Vittoriosa, and the Rialto building in Cospicua, which belongs to the Labour Party. These buildings had never been mentioned before in the original contract, or in the countless press conferences mounted to justify the project. Another contract reveals that the government gifted Sadeen an extra 3,000 square metres at Zonqor, behind everyone’s back. That particular agreement was signed by disgraced OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri.

But there’s more. The leaked emails show Keith Schembri’s keen interest and involvement in the project, and how certain OPM officials were tasked with “following up” a variety of matters related to the AUM, including discussions on additional land and building, planning permits, discussions with the cultural heritage watchdog and even the Lands Authority.

The picture painted by these documents is one where the government went above and beyond its duty to prop up this educational institution. It afforded to AUM pledges and support that no government should ever promise to private business. Indeed, the close relationship between Muscat’s government and AUM gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘business friendly.’

The irony is that, despite all these efforts, despite the pledges and letters of support, the AUM failed miserably. So much so that the current administration has ripped up the Zonqor contract and relocated AUM’s campus to Smart City instead. Not that this move came without controversy, but that is a topic we have already written about.

The point of today’s editorial is that Malta needs many more checks and balances to ensure that governments and private entities do not have such close ‘relationships.’ No private company should be favoured in such a way. We are sure that many Maltese business owners who read the TMI story yesterday were left fuming after realising that they have been treated very differently by the Muscat administration.

The truth is that there should always be a level playing field, and no government should go above and beyond and step in for some business, especially ones that are clearly doomed to fail from the start, and even more so when public funds are squandered to prop up some fantasy project. 

 

 

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