‘Vitals is the new Egrant’. Discuss…

In Joseph Muscat’s mind, ‘Egrant’ has clearly become something of a ‘magic word’, that automatically ‘absolves’ him of… in this case, the Vitals scandal; but presumably, also any other link to any other corruption allegation, that somehow involves either himself as former Prime Minister; or the government he once led

They say that ‘comparisons are odious’ – and as a rule, they’re generally right – but then again, there are lots of things in life we all agree to be ‘odious’; yet which might also serve some useful purpose, in the greater scheme of things. (Like cod-liver oil, for instance; or visits to the dentist; or paying your taxes…. the list is practically endless.)

And besides: comparisons may be ‘odious’ for a wide variety of other reasons, apart from the one most frequently cited (i.e., ‘to compare two different things or persons is generally unhelpful, or misleading.’)

One other reason is that the person making the comparison will inevitably – and often, deliberately – drag in all sorts of other contextual issues, that do indeed have a lot of ‘relevance’, to the discussion at hand… though not always in the way they themselves had originally intended.

But before I go on to unnecessarily complicate matters further: let’s apply all that to a practical example, shall we?

Joseph Muscat. (There, I thought that would get your attention!) In his Smash TV interview with Manwel Cuscheri last Friday, the former Prime Minister described the ongoing Vitals magisterial inquiry as ‘his second Egrant’ – not for the first time, granted – and in so doing, he once again invited us to make the same comparison ourselves, between those two separate scandals.

And let’s face it: sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Both the 2015 Vitals hospitals concession, and the Electrogas energy deal of 2013, were after all mired in more or less exactly the same kind of ‘criminal/corrupt practices’; they were both aimed at embezzling hundreds of millions of euros from the Maltese tax-payer (and if only one of them succeeded, it’s only because the Electrogas swindle was exposed before it had any chance to actually WORK); and…

… what else? Oh, yes! They were both planned and orchestrated by members of Joseph Muscat’s own former Cabinet of Ministers; and both equally ‘on Muscat’s own watch’, as Prime Minister…

Ah, but that wasn’t exactly the sort of analogy that Joseph Muscat himself had in mind, was it? Oh, no! Looking at it uniquely from his (and his followers’) perspective, a whole different picture emerges: one in which Muscat’s use of the word ‘Egrant’ instantly evokes memories of the 2019 inquiry, conducted by Magistrate Aaron Bugeja; which had – always from Muscat’s POV – ‘exonerated’ him of owning that infamous offshore company, to begin with (not to mention its other conclusion, that some of the ‘evidence’ linking Muscat to Egrant was actually ‘fraudulent’…)

Now: I have chosen to overlook the usual critical response, to all that - i.e., the inquiry only found ‘absence of proof’; which is not the same thing as ‘proof of innocence’ – because otherwise, we’d be here all day.

For the purposes of this article, the important thing is that - in Joseph Muscat’s mind, at any rate - ‘Egrant’ has clearly become something of a ‘magic word’, that automatically ‘absolves’ him of… in this case, the Vitals scandal; but presumably, also any other link, to any other corruption allegation, that somehow involves either himself as former Prime Minister; or the government he once led.  (And, just like the ‘conjuror’s trick’ it so clearly resembles… it seems to actually work, every single time!)

But no matter: because – as I was saying earlier – there are inevitably going to be plenty of other ways in which ‘Egrant’ and ‘Vitals’ can realistically be compared… one of them being that both words seem to possess instant ‘magical properties’, of their own.

Having already dispensed with ‘Egrant’ – which both ‘absolves’ and ‘convicts’ Joseph Muscat of the same corruption scandal (depending on whether you actually believe him or not) -  let us now turn our attention to its ‘cousin’, Vitals.

For it seems that Muscat is not the only one who’s been exploiting those scandals, for his own private ‘conjuration’ purposes … and once again, a practical example might be the best way to illustrate that.

So without further ado, let us zap channels from Smash TV last Friday, to TVM a couple of days earlier… just in time to catch a brief exchange that took place roughly halfway through last Wednesday’s ‘Popolin’.

The discussion was supposed to be about ‘Budget 2024’… so unsurprisingly, a General Workers Union official (Anne Vella, who represents ‘pensioners’) was eventually given a chance to speak.

Addressing Nationalist MP Jerome Caruana Cilia directly, she said (words to the effect of): “I enjoyed hearing the Opposition using the phrase ‘theft from the people’, because I think you were experts in this…”

She went on to “recount how her family had struggled through several PN government budgets”; reminding Caruana Cilia that “she hasn’t forgotten the five energy-saving bulbs they had handed out to households: ‘We remember those bulbs! Weren’t you laughing in our faces back then? I may be a pensioner now but I won’t forget those times and how my family struggled to raise us…”

All of which eventually led her to observe that - in her own experience – people’s reactions to Budget 2024 were often to approach her directly, and ask her to convey their personal thanks to the Minister [Clyde Caruana], for all his hard work, etc.

It was at this precise moment – after having stared at her impassively (and almost unblinkingly) throughout – that Caruana Cilia suddenly interjected:

“Do they thank him for the millions that were stolen by Vitals, too?”

And… hey presto! Suddenly, we are all expected to simply overlook all Ms Vella’s arguments; and instead, subscribe to a ‘fantasy universe’ in which past Nationalist governments had NOT spent 25 entire years neglecting pensioners (and other ‘lesser mortals’), in budget, after budget, after budget…

… just because Jerome Caruana Cilia uttered the magical incantation, ‘VITALS!’, on live TV (and – to his credit – succeeded in actually resembling Harry Potter a little more than he usually does, anyway…)

Erm… sorry, but – just as Jerome Caruana Cilia himself would no doubt argue, with regard to Muscat’s earlier ‘unauthorised use of magical spells’ - the same applies to both himself, and the Opposition Party he represents….

… even more so, I would say: not least, because (as I might have mentioned earlier) the topic under debate, in that particular episode of ‘Popolin’, was actually ‘Budget 2024’… and NOT ‘the Vitals scandal’, that Caruana Cilia kept trying to surreptitiously ‘sneak into the discussion’.

Clearly, then, the word ‘Vitals’ was being used in much the same way as Muscat would later use ‘Egrant’: i.e., as some kind of ‘magical spell’, designed to:

  1) Conjure up an instant ‘smokescreen’, to hide the Opposition’s lack of any SERIOUS criticism of Budget 2024 [Note: and how can the PN even criticise any of this budget’s measures… when they’re not even proposing anything substantially different, themselves?];

    2) Create a ‘diversion’, of the kind that Harry Potter himself might describe as… ‘MUTATIS SUBJECTUS!’ (in other words, an attempt to simply derail the entire discussion, by continually ‘changing the subject’ whenever it’s not going your way...)

And let’s face it, folks: Jerome Caruana Cilia is far from being the only Opposition Party member, who responds to all such criticism by simply ‘waving a wand about’, and shouting ‘MUTATIS SUBJECTUS!’, in tones reminiscent of ‘Severus Snape’...

Bernard Grech’s formal response to Budget 2024, for instance, was to complain that: “Government did not say anything about the €400 million it should be getting back…”; and “The government colluded with those who defrauded the country, so no wonder it cannot reclaim the money”, etc, etc.

Now: all that may even be correct, at the end of the day.  The problem, however, is that – beyond some very vague allusions to ‘the rest of the healthcare sector’, in general – there was barely a single mention, anywhere in the Opposition Party’s official statement in Budget 2024, of any of the measures it actually contains.

There was not a word about ‘pensions’, for instance; or the ‘energy sector’; or the ‘construction industry’; or ‘agriculture’ – just to name a few that were actually impacted, one way or another, by this year’s budget.

Instead, there is simply a blanket ‘argument’ – which I think you’ll find vaguely familiar; seeing as it’s IDENTICAL to Joseph Muscat’s, above - that: “Because the Labour government has been ‘found guilty’ (in the PN’s POV) of at least one major corruption scandal (Vitals), in the past… well, that’s it! Nothing left to even discuss. Because that one corruption scandal, you see, is enough to simply eclipse ALL other issues, that happen to be ongoing in Malta today….”

So never mind if you happen to care about certain other issues, facing this country (including the environment; the cost of living; Malta’s age demographics; water scarcity; traffic, transport, overpopulation… take your pic) either as much as, or even MORE than, ‘whether Malta ever gets its stolen E400 million back, or not’…

You’re out of luck, I’m afraid. Because from now on, Malta’s only Opposition Party is only ever going to be interested in discussing: ‘Vitals, Vitals, Vitals, Vitals, Vitals…!’, from now till the next election.

And if, once again, all that seems vaguely familiar, to your ears: it’s probably because - like me - you remember the months preceding the 2017 election… when the Nationalist Party’s rallying cry (if not, entire ‘raison d’etre’) had likewise been: ‘Egrant, Egrant, Egrant, Egrant!’, all the way down to the final whistle.

And, well… we all know how THAT went for the Nationalist Party in the end, don’t we?  (Moral of the story: comparisons really ARE ‘odious’, after all…)