The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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Abela’s establishment rhetoric ‘not decent or befitting of a prime minister’, UĦM CEO says

Albert Galea Sunday, 26 May 2024, 08:30 Last update: about 20 days ago

UĦM CEO Josef Vella has blasted Prime Minister Robert Abela’s establishment rhetoric, saying that it is neither decent nor befitting of a prime minister who is meant to be the leader of the whole country, not just a political party.

“Such discourse is being used to mobilise the PL’s hard core. It is being done so that by 8 June, the haemorrhage that this story (the hospitals magisterial inquiry) might leave is mitigated,” Vella told The Malta Independent on Sunday in an interview.

“But coming from a prime minister… the prime minister is the leader of the country not just of a party. Coming from a prime minister this talk is not decent or befitting of the position,” Vella said.

Vella’s union was the only one to attend a protest organised by multiple civil society organisations a week and a half ago, and he lambasted other social partners for not taking a stand on the hospitals’ deal.

He also argued that the Labour Party was actually lucky that the magisterial inquiry was not concluded earlier, because by now a lot more details about it would have emerged.


‘Damage control’

Vella described the government’s reaction to the inquiry being concluded and charges being filed as “damage control” particularly within the context of the MEP elections.

He cast doubt on the mere suggestion that some sort of “establishment” even exists.

“I don’t think anyone has any doubt that this government has control over its institutions, but the word ‘establishment’ indicates that there is an organisation which has the power to pull the strings itself. I have no doubt that no union, social partner, Nationalist Party, or anybody else has the power that the government is saying,” Vella said.

“When you see cheques being issued before an election – you have to be an establishment to do that; you need to have control in your hands,” he said, adding that this power of incumbency has always been present but is now being taken onto “another level”.

He likened the government’s narrative to a football game: “When the referee whistles a penalty in favour of our team, then we say how good the referee is; but when the referee whistles a penalty against our team, suddenly everybody shouts against him. That’s what is happening.”

Vella questioned what would happen if a delegation from the European Union had to come to Malta like it did in 2019.

“What do we tell them? We defend the rule of law and say that it is strong and reigns in the country, but now what are we saying? What do the attacks on the judiciary mean within the context of rule of law? There is a strong dissonance between what we preach and what we do,” he said.

The current message, Vella said, is “mistaken”. “What we need to be saying is that the law is there for everyone.”

“Sometimes people try to give a twist that those in favour of justice being done are vindictive. No, sorry, that’s not true. So, if I park badly and I get a fine, I lament at how vindictive the LESA officer is, or that I did a mistake?”


Vella decries other social partners for not taking a stand with UĦM

Vella referred to the joint statement that the UĦM issued together with the CMTU, wherein both asked the government to be cautious in its narrative, because there were governments in Europe who attacked the judiciary and faced repercussions in the form of the EU stopping funding.

This happened in Poland, and Vella noted how Poland had to change its politicians and really show the EU that the rule of law is being respected before funding was restarted. “Do we know what it means if we keep going with this narrative and attacking our institutions?”

Vella expressed his displeasure that this statement was passed through the MCESD, where all social partners are represented, and then sent to the social partners. “Unfortunately nobody said that they agreed; and nobody, really and truly, said that they disagreed, and we had to issue it alone.”

Even at an MCESD level, this matter has now been deemed closed.

“The MCESD is a very high organ in the social dialogue process; so why are we afraid of saying what is right? If someone says we shouldn’t be partisan, I agree. If someone says we shouldn’t be firing below the belt comments, I agree. But now that we know what is right, and we're being objective by discussing what happened to others and warning against it happening to us, has even this become difficult to acknowledge?”

Vella said that even student organisations have made stronger statements, and described this as a “bitter experience” with the MCESD.

He noted how when an average worker is charged with something, they are suspended from their workplace with all the repercussions that this has, before the disciplinary process against them has started.

“We don’t stay saying, no let’s wait for the courts to decide then if he’s found guilty he will be penalised,” he added. In contrast, he noted, the country has a Central Bank governor who is yet to resign even though he faces charges.

“One can say a lot about Chris Fearne’s resignation – but in truth when you read it, it is well-written and well-thought. But those only count for one person? We are talking about the Central Bank, which is part of the ECB. Can we, as an EU country, have a shadow like this over us?” he said.

“My fear is on whether there has been any political direction for there to be no resignation, or to say that it shouldn’t be done before 8 June. Does this reflect the level of seriousness we require? I acknowledge that there are political tactics involved, but there comes a moment when the country's interests must take precedence. Currently, the country's interests are not being prioritized," he added.


Protests: The question isn’t why UĦM went, but why others didn’t – Vella

The UĦM was the only union among over 20 organisations to take part in a national protest over a week ago, when details about the concluded inquiry emerged and when people, such as Joseph Muscat, faces charges.

Vella said that the UĦM had been participating in protests which it felt were being genuinely done in the national interest for a while, adding that in this case the union could not be “double-faced” and not take part when it has taken the government to court in connection with the hospitals’ deal.

He noted that the question shouldn’t be why the UĦM went, but why others didn’t go.

He said that he is afraid if things have come to a point that some might consider not attending a protest because they are waiting for an answer on a collective agreement. “Is this the democratic way?” he asked.

“As leaders of social partners with a public function, what message are we sending to the people? When they see us silent, how do they interpret that? Do they think that we are weak or that we have no moral fibre? Or do they think that because we are silent, then the issue at hand isn’t major?”

He said that the government is duty-bound to respect that they can protest when they disagree. “The government protests when it disagrees with us; they open judicial processes against us when they disagree with industrial action. So why can’t we?”


Vella suggests the Labour Party is lucky that the magisterial inquiry did not finish earlier

Vella lambasted Abela’s suggestion that the Nationalist Party was laying some sort of trap for protestors who will gather outside the law courts in solidarity with his predecessor Joseph Muscat as he is charged in court on Tuesday.

“You should have the courage to say that either he is against this type of protest or that everyone has a right to protest as long as it is done peacefully – but not try and invent a narrative about some plot straight out of Netflix and say that there is a trap,” Vella said.

He continued that if he does have reliable evidence – as he claims he does – then it’s his responsibility as prime minister to stop it from happening.

Vella also debated the prime minister’s point on the timing of the inquiry’s conclusion right before the election, noting that the Labour Party is actually lucky that the inquiry wasn’t finished earlier.

“Try to imagine had this come out at the start of 2023. By now, imagine how many more details we would know – even now details are slowly emerging, let alone after a year-and-a-half when we would have had four, five, six court sittings and everyone would have had the opportunity to follow them,” he pointed out.

He said he would have understood this narrative and wouldn’t have been necessarily surprised if it came from the PL’s CEO or secretary general; “but for a prime minister to do it… I think one has to be a lot more careful”.

Vella also noted that these things are also being followed abroad. Ambassadors send technical reports on the situation in Malta, and he said that the current scenario in the country is certainly not conducive to attracting foreign investment.

“It is very difficult to attract good investment when you have lost your reputation and this situation is ongoing. The ripple effect is not just legal or social, or even restricted to Malta and Gozo. That’s why I am worried about social partners refusing to endorse a small press release which is calling for caution based on what happened in other countries,” he said.


The hospitals’ deal and the worker

Speaking about the impact that this concession has had on workers in general, Vella said that for the government to try and justify giving this contract to Vitals – which then became the “real deal” with Steward – it gave them workers and told them they will send them the money to pay them.

However, when this happened, Steward said that they had no obligation for their staff to be paid like their peers working with the government. He continued that Steward did not feel that they had to stick to the established sectoral agreements because the government did not bother to tie Steward to do so, even though it was the government itself giving Steward money to pay workers.

“So everybody was paid differently, and some were not comparable to the same worker in the same profession in the same ward which falls under the civil department. This created a question on equal pay for job of equal value,” he said.

Beyond that, there was the impact on the patients. Vella questions what would have happened had the concession – which actually covered 30 years and was worth €4bn – not been annulled and “how much money we would be paying for nothing”.

He said that the money paid has not resulted in anything beneficial to patients, and could have been used better elsewhere. “Look at St Luke’s and Karin Grech… it’s almost shameful walking through there. There’s nothing… we can’t even say that they painted a wall,” he said.

“Are we finding it so difficult to understand the disservice we have been given?”

He said that one should try and imagine what could have been done with the €400m paid to Vitals and Steward as part of the deal, citing an example of a young man who visited the UĦM offices this week, explaining that he must personally cover the cost of medical injections at €700 per dose because they are not listed on the government formulary.

“What baffles me is not how this establishment narrative can be said, but how anybody can believe it. I don’t think anybody can believe it – not Nationalists, not Labourites, not anybody disinterested in either party – but unfortunately the partisan aspect is bigger than our national interests. I prefer having a friend in my (political) party to rob the country than the other one being in power, even if they don’t steal,” he said.

“I think that it is dangerous to reason in such a tribal manner. It’s useless saying that Malta comes first, speaking about the national interest, and taking an oath to the Constitution – it is nothing more than rubbish if it doesn’t transfer into our day-to-day behaviour,” he concluded.

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