The only ‘vital’ things are transparency and accountability

The debate sounded uncannily familiar to my ears... only the party now in government was back then in opposition, and... um... vice versa

It is the parties themselves that morph from one mode to the other, the moment they cross over from one side of the house to another
It is the parties themselves that morph from one mode to the other, the moment they cross over from one side of the house to another

I suppose we can no longer be surprised to discover that... yes, actually, history does repeat itself. All the time, and in every imaginable way. Not a big mystery why, either. Things in general may be in a process of perpetual flux... but human nature remains a constant throughout. In fact, we haven’t changed a jot since Adam first blamed Eve for tempting him into eating that apple (and Eve, naturally, blamed the serpent).

There: even in the earliest mythical accounts of Creation, you can already discern the same basic character traits that underpin all our actions and thoughts as human beings. We never take responsibility for anything we do wrong; and we always point fingers at others.

And the finger-pointing was just the start. Let’s not forget that both Adam and Eve had also tried to conceal their disobedience from God... they covered their nakedness, and hid behind a bush. (How many people have done that since, when busted in compromising situations? I shudder to even imagine...) But in any case: evidently, they sort of hoped God might not even notice at all.

Which, I suppose, not only banishes any possible doubt that Adam and Eve were, in fact, human – be honest, you’d have done exactly the same thing yourself - but it also illustrates how much ‘innocence’ was actually lost that day. I mean, come on: you’d have to be pretty darn naive to expect someone like God (of all people) not to even notice that you were stark-bollock naked one second... then hiding your wiener with a fig-leaf the next... All the same, naivety is no excuse. So we must also add a lack of transparency, to the glaring lack of accountability later displayed by our earliest pro-genitors in the first-ever documented case of misappropriation.

So who the hell can still be surprised, when the same basic traits continue to manifest themselves ever since? History is, after all, mostly dictated by the antics of the powerful. And while the individual people who occupy the seat of power may come and go... the effect of that power on all the human beings it touches remains virtually unchanged throughout recorded time.

I suppose you’ll have seen by now where I’m going with all this. Among the millions of transient ‘changes’, eternally revolving around this constant nucleus of human nature, is the periodic alternation between government and opposition parties in this country. Only it is not just that a Nationalist government sometimes gives way to a Labour one, and vice versa. Oh, no. It is that the Nationalist Party itself becomes the Labour Party – and vice versa – whenever that happens. As a feat of conjuration, it remains remarkable in that it continually succeeds in fooling the great majority of onlookers... election, after election, after election. All the same: it is a conjuring trick, nothing more. The reality is that government remains government (and thinks and acts accordingly) regardless which or how many parties occupy its parliamentary seats. And by the same token, opposition remains opposition. It is the parties themselves that morph from one mode to the other – with a spectacular suddenness that, I must admit, does sometimes take me by surprise – the moment they cross over from one side of the house to another.

And vice versa, of course. But I’m tired of typing that, so take it as a given from now on.

OK, now I suppose you’ll need a few examples, won’t you? Like, ‘my word for it’ is not enough, right? Funny, how some of these demands always come from people who are usually quite happy to accept the most outlandish claims imaginable, without even a trace of evidence. Starting with that little story about a talking snake and a forbidden fruit...

But still: if it’s evidence you want, there’s the parliamentary debate about the Vitals Hospital agreement. You know, the one about how Government committed itself to a contract with a private firm to take over three public hospitals – for one euro each – on the promise of €200 million investment that never actually materialised; and how the firm itself now appears to be scattered across an entire micro-galaxy of small, independent companies – some of which of unclear ownership, it seems – and which, in any case, is now trying to sell its operations to an equally hazy American investor... anyway, that’s the one.

Nor was this €200 million investment the only thing to remain invisible throughout proceedings. When Government tabled the contract, great parts of it had been blacked out (and remain unseen to this day). Hints and details about what the obfuscated passages may reveal are now dripping out of the debate daily: including the longevity of the contract itself, which seems to have miraculously extended to 99 years from the original 30. Oh, and the minor detail that Government will have to fork out 80 million, to buy back three hospitals it sold off (complete with equipment) for €3. Aehm... no, I didn’t leave out any zeroes there. €3.

But let’s not get side-tracked by such petty details. The interesting thing is that the whole debate sounded uncannily familiar to my ears. It’s as though we were debating the same thing very recently, only...

... only the party now in Government was back then in Opposition, and... um... vice versa. The issue itself was not, perhaps, identical. But it also involved a contract with a firm to build (but not to operate, still less own) a hospital, and it also involved the deletion of great chunks of the transaction when this was (very reluctantly) tabled in parliament.

‘Transparency’ and ‘accountability’, remember? God knows we’ve been paying for that same first mistake long enough...

Now that my memory has started to ‘concretise’... debates between Opposition and Governments about Mater Dei hospital – and by extension, the health sector as a whole - have been raging, on and off, for the better part of 20 years. There were allegations of corruption in the initial construction tender, back in the 1990s; then separate charges in relation to the purchase of medical equipment. There were separate accusations of direct orders in hiring medical personnel, debates about cost-overruns, project delays... all the way down to the very stuff that hospital is actually made of. The unstable Skanska cement, upon which we have built so much of our precarious national health service...

But by a curious twist of history, throughout all these debates we have always heard the same arguments repeated by different governments, when accused by different oppositions of the same things. This, for instance, is from a Parliamentary report in 2004, when Prime Minister Gonzi tabled parts of the final contract with Skanska (revealing the total cost, but not the breakdown, of the as-yet incomplete hospital). “In the last moments of the debate, Dr Sant insisted that all the relevant documentation must be tabled. Dr Gonzi agreed, except for what he called ‘confidential information’ which created reactions from the Opposition...”

Naturally, the same general pattern applies to other areas apart from health. The BWSC contract of which a redacted form was finally tabled in May 2010. Here is another quote, from an article at the time; “... [Opposition leader] Joseph Muscat criticised Prime Minister Gonzi for ‘humiliating himself’ when he asked for BWSC’s permission to publish the agreement reached on the new plant and then having to wait a week before he was granted permission to publish only parts of this contract...”

The bus service contract awarded to Arriva: “the 128-page contract with Arriva was tabled in October 2011, eleven months after it was signed. A few commercially sensitive items were omitted from the published documents...”

Or the entire Dockyard privatisation process, culminating “in 2010, [when] Muscat criticised the Nationalist government for excluding crucial information about Palumbo Spa from the due diligence report it had presented to parliament alongside the agreement [...] Muscat claimed that the report excluded the memorandum and articles of association of the Italian company, reference to its background and standing... etc., etc.”

Meanwhile, to the best of my knowledge, the full contracts concerning the Electrogas deal have all along remained unpublished to this day... and Simon Busuttil spent years as Opposition leader banging his shoe on the desk, demanding ‘full transparency’ on every aspect of the deal. Just as Delia is now doing with regard to the Vitals contract....

It all starts sounding a bit ‘samey’, doesn’t it? You can predict whatever any of those protagonists is going to say, not because of who they are, but on the basis of how much power they wield at any given time. So Joseph Muscat, when Opposition leader, loudly demands transparency and accountability (sometimes going down to the nittiest of nitty-gritty details) whenever a Nationalist government signs a public contract worth untold millions; only for Joseph Muscat the Prime Minister to withhold ‘commercially sensitive’ information on the basis of ‘national interest’ in any contract...

OK, I’m overlabouring the point now. I know. But there does (or should) come a moment when too many people see through the same conjuring trick, for it to always keep working. And Muscat himself pinpointed why, too... it’s about ‘credibility’. And also about ‘national interest’.

If nothing else, at least this little trick must be exploded, once and for all. It is not the prime minister of any country who can simply decide, on his or her own whim or fancy, what constitutes ‘the national interest’. Last I looked, I was part of this nation, too. I say it’s in the national interest for every detail of every national contract to be made public and thoroughly scrutinised before being signed... and not years later, and even then only in bits and bobs.

I’d say as much to any prime minister, and about any public contract, even if just because it is ultimately the Maltese taxpayer – and not the prime minister of the day – who will ultimately foot the bill. And like any other person in full possession of his/her mental faculties, the Maltese taxpayer cannot possibly be expected to approve a contract for the sale of his/her own property without even seeing it. Still less one which seems to sell off a giant chunk of the entire (potential) national health service so cheaply, and for the deal itself to seemingly fizzle out so soon.

And in any case: it’s only the same thing the party now in government used to say itself, before it simply morphed into its antithesis before our very eyes, just like that.

‘Transparency’ and ‘accountability’, remember? God knows we’ve been paying for that same first mistake long enough...

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