Wednesday 28 February 2024

We did not sign up for this

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Every five years, the Maltese electorate casts its vote and elects a political party into office because, well…someone has to run the country.

Voters take a look at what is on offer, cast their votes and hope for the best. When an out-of-touch, fatigued PN was on its last legs in 2013, it was clear to most people that its time was up. When you basically have what is known as a two party system such as we have, the choice we have is either the Nationalists or Labour (apart from the small coterie of loyal voters who keep voting for third parties). Since then another two elections (2017 and 2022) have confirmed Labour’s place in office, always with a majority which has basically annihilated the Opposition.

The problem is that, whether one has voted for them or not, we are lumped with whoever has been elected. And even if one has voted for Labour in the past, it does not necessarily mean that one has to accept whatever they do with helpless resignation. I get annoyed by such phrases as “that is what people voted for” or “that is what the majority wanted” because that continues to reiterate the defeatist attitude that we are powerless in the face of whoever is in Government, no matter how badly they govern.

No, sorry, the voice of the people is not just every five years, and no, we should not just shut up and shrug because “well, they are in power now”. While it is only an actual vote which can physically remove them from their seats, it does not mean that we should not keep up the pressure to make the Government do its job better. We should always insist that it does the right thing because complacency will only ensure more corruption, more political scandals, more trading in influence and a host of other ethical breaches which we keep reading about on a daily basis.

This week we learned that former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is being investigated over payments from a Swiss firm linked to the hospitals. Some might ask, but doesn’t he have the right to earn a living? Yes, of course, but the contracts he signed shortly after resigning were not with just any company. It is virtually impossible to ignore all the red flags and “coincidences”.

One of the Swiss companies, Accutor Consulting, used to exist under the name VGH Europe; VGH Malta is the company which entered into the initial concession agreement for the hospitals. It was also revealed that Steward Health Care paid companies in the Accutor group €5.9 million, just before Muscat went on board.

Leaving aside the people who, in one way or another, also directly profited from his term in office, I doubt many Labour voters are happy to learn that Muscat walked away from the leadership with tens of thousands of Euro in lucrative consultancy deals entered into with the very same people he was dealing with when he was PM. The point of voting in someone new was because it was meant to be better for the country, not so that this person could end up becoming a millionaire at our expense by using his powerful position as a way to pave a secure future for himself. It will be interesting to see how he will wangle himself out of this – true to form, he has already come out with a very blustering denial of any wrongdoing and claiming that he is being framed.

According to a news report,

“Dr Joseph Muscat rejected these allegations and insisted that he has done legitimate work which is documented, in relation to the consultancy contract. He added that there is evidence which shows the projects he has worked on and the meetings he attended. He said that he does not feel that these should be divulged, but he will make them available for the competent authorities.”

But that’s not the point is it? Out of all the consultancies in the world why should Muscat just happen to have landed on ones which were directly connected to his administration? If he cannot see anything legally wrong with what he did, ethically his behaviour stinks to high heaven.

This is similar to his consultancy work for construction mogul, Michael Stivala which started a few months after Muscat resigned. Quoted in a recent interview, Stivala says “he has no qualms in engaging Joseph Muscat as a consultant, denying that it is payback for favourable treatment he got during the former prime minister’s tenure.”

Stivala is being disingenuous if he actually believes that Muscat suddenly becoming his consultant was not going to raise eyebrows. If there is no law which states that a former politician (and a PM no less) should not be allowed to immediately go to work for any company with whom his government has dealt with, well, there should be one. The questions arising from these consultancies are numerous: what was promised in exchange while the politician was in office? What kind of hush-hush agreement was made for when the person left public office? How many more agreements are there, now hidden under the blanket term “consultancy”, which we do not know about?

The issue of what is known as a “revolving door policy” is a matter of concern all over the world, and there are usually measures put in place for this. For example, the EU Staff Regulations state that,

“when there is a risk of a conflict of interest, the Commission may either prohibit intended jobs or decide to place conditions or restrictions on the former staff members’ activities in the new job. Such restrictions must be necessary for the purposes of achieving a legitimate public interest, and must be proportionate. The rules also include a specific prohibition for a period of one year on senior officials engaging in lobbying activities towards their former EU institution on matters for which they were responsible during the last three years in the service.”

The worrying thing for Malta is not so much Muscat’s cavalier attitude towards the whole thing, but the fact that many still fail to see anything wrong with it. Brainwashed by decades and decades of revering politicians, and especially Prime Ministers, as demi-gods, all sorts of unacceptable, potentially corrupt behaviour is allowed to slide. Despite being a country which is so obsessed with politics, we fail miserably when it comes to a real, comprehensive knowledge of political education and what constitutes ethics.

For many, ‘politics’ boils down to, my party beat your party, so “oqħgħd hemm għal ħames snin oħra ja indannat” (“just sit there and stew over it in frustration for the next five years”). It is all about who won, so that I can feel like a winner by association, gloating vicariously like when Man U or Inter win their league. With the political victory of “my” party of course, comes the added bonus of getting favours from my friendly neighbourhood politician in a quid pro quo which is not even technically considered to be corruption by most Maltese people (and yet, it certainly is.)

The only heartening thing this is that, if I am reading the signs correctly, the overwhelming support which Muscat has enjoyed up to now is not as heightened in its frenzy as it used to be. He might still come out guns blazing with a brazen FB post, trying to convince his supporters that he did nothing wrong, but for every blind, loyal supporter who voices their public support, there are countless others who denounce him very publicly while even more have silently, wordlessly, simply turned their backs.

In the end, the Great White Hope of the Labour Party of 2013 turned out to be its greatest liability and the repercussions of the Muscat years are still being felt.

And, if there was any more proof needed of how badly we have all been swindled, we have the photos of the former St Luke’s hospital, which was meant to be upgraded and transformed through those fancy concession deals., laying derelict and abandoned, That is the price we are paying so that others could line their pockets.

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