Looks like Tonio Fenech’s ‘arlogg tal-lira’ is still ticking away in the background…

Just by attending that event, and accepting the hospitality so lavishingly bestowed upon him by that one lobby-group… Robert Abela has sent out a very clear, very public message

But first things first. As there is far too much background detail for a proper introduction, may I suggest you read this report by my colleague Nicole Meilak instead… paying particular attention to the following paragraphs:

  • “Prime Minister Robert Abela confirmed meeting Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli earlier this month, but denied receiving donations or discussing development applications with him.”
  • “[…] Abela was a guest of honour at a private dinner organised by Portelli, a Gozitan construction magnate. Abela met with other Gozitan contractors and entrepreneurs at the dinner event, which took place on the eve of a Labour Party fundraising campaign.”
  • “The dinner took place one week before the Planning Authority approved a controversial development application involving Portelli [which] will see a block of 125 apartments built just 300 metres from the cliff edge in Sannat, Gozo.”
  • “Abela insisted that no planning permits were discussed during the dinner event, and denied accepting any donations at the event.”

Right: now that you’ve had time to digest all that…. did any of you understand even a single word? Because I sure as heck didn’t, myself.

Let’s start with the obvious. If Robert Abela was the ‘guest of honour’ at a dinner party organised by Joseph Portelli – just three days before the Planning Authority approved his latest ghastly monstrosity of a development project; and on the eve of a ‘Labour fund-raising event’ - and Robert Abela didn’t talk about either the Sannat project, or even ‘donations to the Labour Party’… then… erm…

… what the hell did they even talk about, anyway?

Seriously, though. What on earth could the Prime Minister – who, by the way, was also the Planning Authority’s lawyer for years (before giving up the post in January 2020) – have possibly found to discuss, with a table-full of Gozitan entrepreneurs and developers…. at a time when most of those (not just Portelli himself, by the way; nor even just Gozitans) would all have been eagerly awaiting news of their own permit applications: from none other than the man whose fingers are directly on ALL the major control-switches of Malta’s planning regime?

Let me guess. They talked about football. They discussed their own respective preferences for the Italian ‘Serie A’, or the English ‘Premier League’ (and if I’m any judge of these kind of discussions: it ended up in a fight between Chelsea supporters, and everybody else around the table…)

Or wait: maybe they talked about the imminent food shortages we may soon have to face, on account of the war in Ukraine. After all, why not? The Sannat project, alone, will eat into what little remains of Gozo’s agricultural land (and, what’s worse, also encourage other developers – including some who might have been sitting around the same table – to do the same, in future…)

But no matter: for all the difference it actually makes, they could have just as well have discussed Emma Muscat’s new song for next year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Because the truly incomprehensible thing, was not what they did (or didn’t discuss) around that table… but that the event was even allowed to take place at all.

I mean: what was Robert Abela even thinking? Is it even possible that, after everything we’ve been through in recent years – including the John Dalli affair; all the corruption scandals since 2013 (and even before); and not least, having been grey-listed by the FATF, precisely because of all the unwholesome ties between ‘politics’ and ‘big business’ – our Prime Minister still sees nothing at all wrong, with allowing himself to be ‘wined and dined’ by business lobbyists… like it’s the most natural thing in the world?

And not just ‘any old’ business lobbyists, either… but a dinner organised by someone who has even publicly boasted, on live TV, about ‘having both parties in his pocket’?

Well… at least that’s a boast that Joseph Portelli can easily back up, with any amount of (ahem) ‘concrete proof’. But: as far as I can see, it is Robert Abela – not Joseph Portelli – who now has to face certain questions, about that entirely harmless little gathering in Gozo last week.

I mean: this is, after all, the leader of the same Malta Labour Party that had once kicked up such a godawful fuss, when it turned out that former Finance Minister Tonio Fenech had accepted a CLOCK (Tick-tock… a clock!) from a certain oil trader named George Farrugia (in what admittedly feels like ‘another galaxy, long long ago’.)

Ah, but what if I told you that same old ‘arlogg tal-lira’ – which I imagine is still ticking happily away, somewhere in Tonio Fenech’s abode – is arguably the sole reason we even have such a thing as a ‘Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life’ in the first place?

Well… those bottles of ‘Petreus’, donated to Joseph Muscat by Yorgen Fenech, might have had something to do with it, too. And I’ve already mentioned that former European Commissioner John Dalli is now facing criminal charges, over an alleged E60 million bribe by Swedish tobacco lobbyists.

But in any case: put it all together, and a certain inescapable pattern swims into view. Simply put: all those ‘scandals’ I mentioned above – and there are plenty more to choose from – can each be individually traced to one source, and one source only: and that is the excessive, overwhelming influence exerted by massive financial interests, over government’s policies and decisions.

So if Tonio Fenech’s ‘arlogg tal-lira’ episode served no other purpose at all: it did, at least, graphically illustrate the fact that Malta’s public sphere desperately needed some sort of ‘regulatory framework’, to keep its own ethical behaviour in check.

And if there is any increased awareness, today, about such previously-alien concepts as ‘trading in influence’, etc… it can all be traced back to that one case: which paved the way to a revision of the Code of Parliamentary Ethics; thence to the establishment of the Standards Commission; and so on, and so forth, and so fifth.

And yet… fast-forward to 2022, and we still get people like Robert Abela who see nothing whatsoever objectionable, about a Prime Minister who publicly flouts the entire principle that all of the above was originally founded upon.

It’s perfectly OK, it seems, for Robert Abela to be seen - SEEN, please note: he himself tried to justify that dinner by arguing that ‘it happened at a public place’ - graciously accepting the hospitality of a massively-wealthy, massively-influential sector (that we all know relies exclusively on government’s policies and decisions, for its own profits)…

… for all the world as if the provisos of that same Code of Ethics (which, as I recall, preclude any actions that may ‘create a sense of obligation’) simply don’t apply to the Office of the Prime Minister.

Which, of course, brings me back to what was said (or not said) at that ‘dinner event’ with Gozitan development lobbyists.

Now: after everything I’ve already written, above… it may surprise you to discover that I myself have no difficulties – none whatsoever – in simply taking Robert Abela’s word for it, when he insists that: “no planning permits were discussed during the dinner event, and no donations were accepted”.

For one thing, it would have been rather unwise of the Prime Minister to use that sort of occasion – i.e., a dinner-party attended by pretty much all of Gozo’s business community – to discuss a single, solitary planning permit. (For the same reason as that old joke about ‘a fly in your soup’: because ‘everyone else will be wanting one, too!’)

Nor do I believe, for even a second, that Joseph Portelli would have organised that dinner-party, merely to twist the Prime Minister’s arm into securing the PA’s approval for his Sannat permit. (There are, after all, other more ‘private’ ways of arranging such matters… as Portelli himself enjoys reminding us, from time to time).

Heck, I wasn’t even entirely joking, when I suggested earlier that they might have had an argument about international football (or anything similar). Fact of the matter is that… it doesn’t really matter what they talked about at all, at the end of the day.

Just by attending that event, and accepting the hospitality so lavishingly bestowed upon him by that one lobby-group… Robert Abela has sent out a very clear, very public message. And a very unnecessary one, too, perhaps… after all, we didn’t exactly need any ‘public confirmation’ that Maltese prime ministers have always (but never quite so directly, as in this case) ‘eaten from the hands that feed them’, did we?

But just as that message has been unequivocally received by you, me, and everyone else… well, it will have been picked up by the members of the Planning Authority Board, too.

And this, in turn, neatly explains why a permit application that defies practically every last ‘red line’ in Malta’s entire planning rule-book – it’s ODZ; adjacent to a Natura 2000 site; involves loss of agricultural land; etc, etc. – simply flew threw all hurdles… only to get approved, in spite of all objections, just a few days after the Prime Minister was publicly ‘wined and dined’ by the applicant in person. (That is to say: probably faster than Robert Abela himself could even digest that Gozitan meal…)

So yes: I fully believe Abela, when he denies that the matter was ‘discussed’, in that particular meeting with Portelli. There is, after all, no point in ‘discussing’ a decision, that had clearly already been taken long, long ago…