Saturday 22 June 2024

Vitals inquiry: How did we get to this point?

A lot has already been written and said about the conclusion of the Vitals inquiry and the 19 people who are being accused of a number of criminal charges.

Let us start with the facts: former PM Joseph Muscat and former Minister Konrad Mizzi are being charged with money laundering, fraud and making fraudulent gain, as well as conspiracy to commit an offence and participating in a criminal organisation with more than 10 members. They are also being charged with accepting bribes and corruption while in public office. Former chief-of-staff Keith Schembri is being charged with the solicitation of bribes and abuse of his office.

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and Central Bank governor Edward Scicluna are expected to be charged with defrauding the government through deceit and misappropriation of funds.

Past and permanent secretaries, lawyers, advisors and former heads of government entities are also being charged for their involvement in the concession deal to hand three state hospitals to Vitals Global Healthcare.

Apart from the gravity of the charges, what really sent shockwaves throughout the nation was the prosecution’s request to freeze assets of €30 million each for Muscat, Mizzi and Schembri. Other freezing orders for millions of Euro were similarly requested for the other people accused. Everyone on social media went (understandably) berserk at the implications but, as it turned out, these sums do not necessarily reflect the amount of assets identified for each of them, but simply the maximum amount which can be frozen. If I have interpreted the legal jargon correctly, at this stage they are just requests and still need to be upheld by the Court.

After he successfully petitioned the Court, Muscat has been allowed to see parts of the inquiry which pertain specifically to him and he has come out with all guns blazing, in typical Joseph fashion, with an interview on F Living. “In two, three years’ time, when this charade starts coming apart, I’ll hold those responsible for the €11 million spent on the magisterial inquiry,” he said defiantly. With his customary flair for the dramatic, he added, “If I am guilty, send me to prison for life.”

Minister Fearne, writing on social media, has meanwhile said that he had not seen the inquiry’s process verbal and is yet to discover how he features in the inquiry.
He claimed that he had always fulfilled his duty with integrity and had never come close to breaking the law. What hangs in the balance is his nomination to be the next EU Commissioner, which will undoubtedly be tarnished by the fact that he is being charged.
At the time of writing that is all we know for sure, except that perhaps in other countries, all those currently holding public office would have handed in their resignation because it is the honourable thing to do, until their names are cleared (or otherwise). However we all know that in Malta resigning is basically considered political suicide as, for some reason, it is perceived as an admission of guilt. As it turns out, a few hours after I had written that sentence, I checked the news again and saw Chris Fearne’s resignation letter, which was promptly followed by Prime Minister Robert Abela’s letter to him asking him to reconsider. I hope Dr Fearne sticks to his guns because in my view it was the dignified thing to do out of respect for the office he holds.
In such scenarios it is difficult to keep up with all the developments in real time while working against a deadline. So I will leave all the legal ins and outs of this case to the experts (of which there seem to be many). As pointed out by those who work in Court every day, this will hardly be over any time soon as it makes its way through our cumbersome legal system with its inevitable delays.
What interests me is how the Muscat administration managed to crash and burn so spectacularly in just a few short years. Even if we give him an enormous (some would say completely ludicrous) benefit of the doubt, the fact remains that even without the Vitals inquiry, Joseph Muscat had already been ousted from PM, and Konrad and Keith were also forced to exit, stage left. From being the nation’s darling (that 40k majority did not come out of thin air after all), Muscat has ended up being the Labour party’s bete noir. Everything he touched, and every deal negotiated under his watch, seems to have been tainted and dodgy and God help those who were caught up in the fray, for they have been dragged down with him too.

If you ask me, the entire modus operandi can be traced back to when he announced the Golden Passports scheme, a few months after he was sworn in as PM. It was not in the PL mandate, it was never even whispered as a remote possibility and yet there it was presented to us as a fait accompli. He first addressed Henley & Partners, an international law firm, on 31 October 2013 about his plan to attract “high net worth” individuals to our island. Less than three months later, Malta was offering citizenship for sale under a scheme designed by that same firm. The whole thing was so mercenary and so blatantly couched in terms of “give us your money and we will sell you our passport”, that ten years later the whole concept still makes me cringe at its crassness.

Yet, despite the initial protests of horror, Muscat still managed to sway enough people and convince them that this was needed for Malta’s economy. Once a whole slew of professionals realised how much money there was to be made, and once the possibilities trickled down to the rest of the food chain so to speak, the objections fizzled out into whimpers, and there was no going back.

And so it continued with other national sectors which were seemingly sold off to the highest bidder. Nothing was out of bounds, everything was for sale – from our energy sector to Zonqor point under the guise of the American university, to the now infamous hospital deal. Public land was handed out like pastizzi, and construction laws became so lax that developers had no compunction in destroying entire neighbourhoods by tearing down solid family homes to build rickety flats instead. In retrospect, it is no surprise that if someone is willing to sell one’s nationality, nothing is sacred and everything else is fair game. If these deals were above board, with no hint of any scandal, there would not be any problem – but the opposite seems to be the case in almost every single instance.

As we ponder the question of how we got here, we have to remember where it all started. The crumbling last few years of the tired Gonzi administration which was holding on by a thread because of internal strife and the lack of any real vision, was superseded by a shiny bright new star, a fresh-faced kid who promised a brave new world. Let us not forget that 2013 was won with a whopping 9 seat majority for Labour – which was simply unheard of.

In fact, it has always made me nervous when a political party (whether Labour or PN) sweeps into power with such a huge majority. Thinking back over our political history, no real good has ever come out of it. All it has done is filled the heads of fanatical supporters with the unwavering belief that “their” politicians are infallible, irreplaceable and untouchable. Sure the initial victory feels heady and thrilling – but once the euphoria and feel good factor has worn off, there are soon signs that maybe such an overwhelming dominance by one party over another is not such a positive thing after all. That sentiment of “il-gvern tagħna u nagħmlu li rridu”, (we are in Government and we can do as we please) was a phrase I first heard during the Mintoff era. And later on, even if no one was gauche enough to actually go around saying it, it was also there subliminally during the Eddie years, that unspoken belief that the PN was the only natural party which could govern the country…forever.

Now here we are again, almost full circle, faced by a party in government which has become the victim of its own hype and arrogance. Even if by a long stretch of the imagination every one of the 19 people who have been charged come out of the whole thing squeaky clean, the damage has been done. It is like a hand grenade has been thrown into the very heart of the Labour Party, the fallout of which will be felt for years to come. That 40k majority may have seemed like Labour’s wildest dreams had come true, but in the end it has turned out to be just a poisoned chalice.