The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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A great fraud at our expense

Mark Said Sunday, 19 March 2023, 07:41 Last update: about 2 years ago

You do not have to look far back into Malta's political history books to find scandals. Some politicians bounced back from those scandals, though, while some did not, and it is not a simple task to determine why. Moral judgments of politicians are central to how we perceive them. Politics cannot be bleached of those assessments, even if politicians are otherwise doing their jobs well. We could act as if we were simply rational, self-interested, calculative individuals who go about our lives pursuing our own narrow ends with a kind of grim relentlessness.

For people like that, it does not really matter whether our politicians are good or bad people, provided they are doing the things that we expect them to do that are going to serve our own narrow interests. We are wont to judge politicians viscerally. Those visceral, emotional reactions go to our identities and our commitments and moral beings, and we look to politicians to reflect back to us the kind of people that we are and want to be. So what happens when one of them betrays those values and disappoints us, through human error or something worse?

There are many more political scandals older than the Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) hospitals deal, so it is hard to decide if we are progressing or regressing when it comes to certain aspects of the political game. We had our share under past nationalist administrations, such as when the Lowenbrau deal was reached at a time when Jason Azzopardi was responsible for public land. Political scandals encompass all the big titles, ministers, parliamentary secretaries and simple MPs. What I have noticed is that we seem to have a faster rebound in forgetting and forgiving politicians and other officials wielding power that make huge mistakes while in office, or while holding a title with prestige. Do you think 50 years ago we would have allowed a man with political baggage like Konrad Mizzi’s back into office?

Lest we forget. Following right on the heels of that other major Electrogas project scandal in 2013, everything was set for the privatisation deal which saw VGH take over three public hospitals for a 30-year period. The privatisation process was led by Projects Malta, which fell under the responsibility of Mizzi, who replaced Farrugia at the Health Ministry following a 2014 reshuffle.

In 2020, the NAO described the deal as illegal and said VGH should have been disqualified from the contract that committed taxpayers to pay €188,000 a day for 30 years. Thereafter, the government failed to deliver on its promise to review the deal struck with VGH, a largely unknown company with no previous experience in operating hospitals. The Opposition had called for the deal to be scrapped in its entirety and for the hospitals to be returned to the public but stopped there. That notwithstanding, in 2022, Parliament voted in favour of increasing Steward Healthcare’s annual fee to a total of €69m.

That was the last straw. If ever there was a major political scandal completely and heavily impacting us, honest, ordinary and tax-paying citizens, this was it. It caused us and is still causing us, great health and financial hardship. Hard-earned public finances simply and criminally thrown down the drain.

Until, that is, nationalist MP Adrian Delia, when still Opposition leader, and ably assisted by lawyer Edward Debono, filed a case asking the courts to declare the agreement between the government of Malta and VGH, superseded by Steward Health Care, null and void, arguing that the concessionaire had failed to adhere to obligations laid down in the contract. He had the guts to do what others were obliged to do but failed to do. Taking that bold step, he was the equivalent of a political lone ranger who fought and championed a cause of primary concern for the general Maltese public. The ensuing court judgment vindicated Delia’s timely move and put a welcome end to the hospitals’ saga.

It is unforgivable that for all this time no new Gozo hospital was ever built nor were St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals in Malta ever refurbished. It is unforgivable that Parliament voted in favour of increasing Steward Healthcare’s annual fee to a total of €69m. A total letdown and too much wasted time that can never be recouped. It is unforgivable that no criminal prosecutions were ever instituted against all those behind this tragedy.

Personally, I believe political scandal is more present today than it was ever before. Have our values as a society changed? Or do these political scandals and corruption incidents just seem more common because we are all much more tuned with the access to the doings of our politicians at all times via social networking and the internet and our fast-paced environment?

We demand certain details about the men and women we are electing into office because we certainly expect to trust authority and our leaders. We had politicians who made some big mistakes and knew that they had let a lot of people down but also learned some tough lessons.

Forgive and forget, except in extreme cases. Embezzlement and abuse can never be forgiven. Worse, when a government normalises corruption and abuse, then these will become the norm, without countermeasures. Now that is even more unforgivable!

 

Dr Mark Said is a lawyer

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