Secrets and lies

Malta has cooked itself up a maelstrom of explosive ingredients

It could be said that we are living strange days.

The Potemkin façade of Maltese optimism, rude economic growth and sun-jaded fatalism hides an underbelly of murder and corruption. Within less than three years, an electorate vastly loyal to Labour in power, is being drip-fed a chronicle of events that bring shame to the Maltese, as well as the previous administration’s leaders. With compilations of evidence against four men accused of masterminding and assassinating Daphne Caruana Galizia, a public inquiry, the testimony of several witnesses and some pathological liars, a host of magisterial inquiries into corruption allegations, the shadow of yet more graft hanging over the heads of MPs and party leaders, and a Labour Party that is a tad more self-aware of the Muscat-Schembri legacy, Malta has cooked itself up a maelstrom of explosive ingredients.

We can be positive about the facts printed in the press that the suspicion of corruption is ever-present in major government deals that were stewarded by the direct hand of the Office of the Prime Minister. The latest one is the inflated price paid for the Mozura wind park, with money first loaned for its acquisition by none other than 17 Black, Yorgen Fenech’s offshore company; Fenech’s umbilical relationship to Keith Schembri and his secret Panama companies cropped up too late, alas; the life of one woman could have been saved, one hopes, had a serious police investigation been launched immediately in 2016.

It did not. The people in the police corps tasked with that job were unwilling to shake trees. The Attorney General denies having given any go-slow instruction. But there is no doubt that the overweening influence of Keith Schembri loomed large over the Maltese institutions, and that the alluring image of the Labour project that was prospected in 2013 had seduced many.

This newspaper has in the past commented editorially that the moralistic anti-corruption drive to short-circuit the democratic process, most egregiously with the Egrant allegations, may have fortified the electorate’s resolve to back Labour and its otherwise successful management of the country. That is a question of strategy: bread and butter issues cannot be ignored; neither can the performance of party leaders be discounted in democratic showbiz.

Joseph Muscat had laser-eye focus on both aspects, with a delivery of material wellbeing coupled with seductive rhetoric and the power of conviction. Labour was a young government punching above its weight. But it hid dirty secrets.

When the Auditor General found insufficient justification for the government’s decision not to pursue legal action in a bid to rescind the lease on Café Premier in Valletta, through a €4.2 million payment to buy back the 65-year lease on the cafeteria revealed by MaltaToday a year before, this should have been the first sign of the very rotten state inside the OPM.

Then the Auditor General also questioned a “ministerial direction” in a hedging agreement with Azerbaijani energy giant SOCAR. And then there was the €1.65 million expropriation of half a property in Old Mint Street, Valletta, from Mark Gaffarena, in two separate contracts earlier in 2015. 2016 ended with parliament being rushed to approve the land transfer to the Sadeen group before the Christmas recess, in the absence of any tendering procedure. And to that, we have to add the Vitals hospitals privatisation scandal, and the scandalous contracts signed by Konrad Mizzi.

All these misadventures have one mark: the Office of the Prime Minister, which conducted these foolhardy missions for no apparent public gain.

That the Panama Papers and the 17 Black nexus wrap up these questionable deals by the possibility, that millions could have left the country into offshore bank accounts had it not been for the ICIJ revelations, is the ultimate judgement on the legacy of Joseph Muscat.

Muscat presided over one of the most carefully choreographed political projects in history, a brittle façade of stage-managed, aspirational rhetoric, seducing many with his political brilliance. But he gave cover and defended scandalous decisions that reek of corruption: millions paid to select business groups, who took public land and assets through uniquely-crafted expressions of interest.

Strange days? These are scandalous days that could yet reveal more harrowing details of the way government works with its choice business partners.

Robert Abela may have sacked Konrad Mizzi from his backbench. But it will only be the force of law and justice to deliver Malta from its serious quandary. This cluster of malignant cells could yet metastise into a full-blown bribesville scandal, for the dirty secrets of the Muscat administration are not yet out in the open.