The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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TMIS Editorial: PM should open his eyes to national crisis

Sunday, 12 May 2024, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

It is the first time in Malta’s history that a former prime minister, a sitting minister and two former ministers, one of whom is now the Central Bank of Malta governor, are charged with criminal offences in court.

Joseph Muscat, Chris Fearne, Edward Scicluna and Konrad Mizzi find their names in a long list of people who will undergo court proceedings following the conclusion of the magisterial inquiry into what is referred to as the Vitals case – the deal which saw the Labour government pass on three public hospitals to be run privately.

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That deal has since been rescinded by a court of law, which described it as having been “fraudulent”, a judgment which was confirmed on appeal, which had ruled that there had been some form of “collusion”.

On Friday, after some prodding, Fearne resigned his post as deputy PM and minister, even rejecting the Prime Minister’s desperate attempt to make him change his mind. He has also withdrawn from the nomination as Malta’s new European Commissioner, expanding the crisis Robert Abela is facing even further.

While we wait for the court proceedings to start – it will probably take years for the matter to be settled – let us remember how we arrived at this point.

Were it for the Labour government, Malta would still be pumping millions of euros every year, from public money, to run the three hospitals. Budget after budget, the Labour government voted to give these millions without batting an eyelid. In spite of the criticism that was being levelled at the government about the way things were evolving, Labour – under Muscat and later Robert Abela – sniggered and, believing it could get away with it ad infinitum, kept on handing over the cash.

Let us remember that the government had retained and sustained the deal even after, in 2020, the National Audit Office had already established that there had been “collusive action”. The NAO had also then highlighted its concern that the government had not provided a copy of the agreement. The government just ploughed on, ignoring all warning signs.

It is only thanks to a court case initiated by then Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia, and which he continued after he was deposed, that led to the collapse of the arrangement. The judgment against it, which was confirmed on appeal, caught the government unawares, and it has since been trying to recover from the political fallout. Without that court case, the government would have never killed the deal.

But the worst was still to come as, while all this was taking place, a magisterial inquiry was also taking place in parallel – with Muscat frantically trying to get the magistrate conducting it off the case. The conclusions of that inquiry have now led to charges being brought up against him and many others. Muscat, who was voted as the man of the year for corruption in 2019 by an international group of journalists, now has an even bigger blemish next to his name.

But let us remember, again, that it was an NGO that started the proceedings. It was not the police who investigated. It was NGO Repubblika who requested that a magisterial inquiry is initiated into the hospitals deal. People will be arraigned only because this NGO called for an investigation.

The reply to all this by the Labour government, Abela and Muscat is a barrage of statements against the judiciary, no doubt an attempt to raise tempers among the populace and intimidate the magistrates and judges who will have to oversee the cases that have been instituted.

Their efforts have been so blatant that they have drawn widespread criticism from institutions that do not normally like to enter the political fray.

Employer bodies – the Malta Employers Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of SMEs – wrote that attacks on the judiciary “strike at the heart of Malta’s democratic credentials and challenge basic principles of governance.”

More than 200 University lecturers also denounced the PM and his predecessor, strongly condemning “any attempt to deflect scrutiny through attacks on the very institutions responsible for upholding the rule of law”.

University students, unusually pro-active, went as far as to hold a protest in Valletta in support of the judiciary, deploring the efforts to “undermine the public confidence and trust in our judiciary, and are aimed at tarnishing the reputation of our judges and magistrates.”

Even the President, Myriam Spiteri Debono, felt the need to intervene in what appeared to be a direct reproach to the PM and Muscat, saying that the judiciary should be allowed to function in a “serene atmosphere”.

The Prime Minister is failing to see the extent of this crisis. Like a broken record, he continues to blame the “establishment”, the invisible ghost he created to deflect attention away from all the wrongdoings he, his government and his predecessor are responsible for.

His attempt to stop Fearne from resigning is yet another sign that he is not seeing the bigger picture, and is intent on defending his party’s interests first, rather than those of the whole nation.

The task of leading the country is becoming too big for him.

 

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