The Malta Independent 25 March 2023, Saturday
View E-Paper

TMIS Editorial: The effect of the hospitals deal judgment

Sunday, 19 March 2023, 10:30 Last update: about 5 days ago

It was to be expected that the landmark hospitals’ deal judgment would have led to a shift in public sentiment. But few could have anticipated that the change would have been so dramatic.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale rescinded the Labour government’s deal which had handed over three public hospitals to the private sector. The ruling has been appealed, with the government pushing for it to be treated with urgency.


But, a day after the appeal was filed, Steward then chose to exit the deal, accusing the government of breaching commercial agreements and going on to scathingly remark on Malta’s grey-listing by the FATF “which identified serious structural deficiencies in Malta’s governance and regulation that do not accord with (Steward’s) own values”.

By expressing its concern about the “deterioration of the business environment in Malta” and mentioning the “decline in the rule of law”, Steward’s statement was as harsh as the rebuke that the government was given by the court.

It was immediately clear that the judgment delivered on 24 February was a big blow to the government on a political level. In this paper’s editorial two days after the ruling, we had written that it was probably the highest point for the PN in the past decade and a huge defeat with consequences for the Labour government. The first measurement of the scale of public outrage came in the form of a survey which was published by MaltaToday last Sunday.

Voters punished the Labour Party over the Steward hospitals deal “as it crashes to its worst ever result”, the newspaper screamed on its front page. The March survey result saw an 8% decline in support for Labour when compared to February, while the Nationalist Party increased its backing by 6%. The gap between the two parties, according to the survey, is now 8,500 votes, when previously it topped 50,000. The difference is within the margin of the survey’s error, “something which not has been seen for years”.

What is also significant, the paper reported, is that Prime Minister Robert Abela’s trust rating dropped by 11%, while that of his political rival Bernard Grech increased by 6%.

In a nutshell, the court judgment on the hospitals deal was able to swing the public much, much more than other scandals have done in the past decade. The Panama Papers revelations, the killing of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and the resignation of a prime minister who had earned the title of man of the year in corruption, to mention a few of the Labour government’s disgraces, had not led to such a fluctuation.

Time will tell whether this was a fluke result, one obtained at the heat of the moment or whether it is the start of a trend. The next survey will give a stronger indication about this although, as we have always insisted, the real test is when people go to vote. The next time they will do so is for the European Parliament election in May 2024, and so many things can change between now and that time.

The PN, as was predictable, is trying to build on the momentum. It is now more “present” than it ever was in the last decade, with protests in Valletta gathering the crowds and daily events which have aimed to increase the pressure on the government. In these past few weeks, the PN has shown a kind of unity that was missing in the last decade and before that, and the party would do well to seek to maintain it. It should however not over-estimate the situation, as things can change very quickly.

For its part, the Labour Party must not under-estimate the effects of the court judgment and aftermath. It is in defence mode but, in its effort to defend the indefensible, it is coming across as being confused. It has been attacked by the PN, civil society and independent newspapers – all of whom have been pointing out for years that something was rotten in the hospitals deal. It has now also been attacked by Steward.

The thing is, it does not want to condemn the deal, because it would be indirectly criticising decisions taken under its former leader Joseph Muscat; on the other hand, by protecting Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and the rest it is taking a stand against the interests of the people. The balance is not easy to find and, frankly, Labour has not found it at all. The conflicting messages that it has sent since the 24 February judgment expose it as trying to please God and Caesar at the same time, with no success.

It means one thing – that Robert Abela knows how bad the deal was, but he also knows that he cannot be seen to go against his predecessor, still the apple of the eye for most Labourites.

  • don't miss