Robert Abela has a lot to apologise for

But with none of those 23 recommendations having actually been implemented, at any point in the last two years… clearly, Robert Abela has a lot to apologise for

Asked whether he feels he owes the Maltese public an apology, for the Vitals/SHC deal, Prime Minister Abela merely repeated the same line he had earlier used in Parliament:

“I have no apology to make, I was not involved in that agreement; […] People will judge me on how I offered a solution to the problem I inherited.”

To be fair: this was the closest the Prime Minister came to drawing the line between himself and his predecessor Joseph Muscat, on whose watch the hospitals deal was struck.

However, Abela never called out Muscat by name for the ‘fraudulent, possibly criminal’ wrongdoings flagged by the court, at every stage of proceedings. As such, the Prime Minister cannot expect to be taken seriously, when he argues that “his administration built on the good of his predecessor”; but took steps to “reform where things were not done well”.

But the argument is flawed on a number of other counts, too. For starters, Robert Abela seems to be making the same mistake that other Maltese Prime Ministers (and politicians in general) have made before him: that of confusing ‘political responsibility’, with ‘criminal culpability’.

This reasoning is problematic, even at the best of times: because it enables Prime Ministers to simply sidestep ever having to take any responsibility for anything at all: beyond their own, direct ‘involvement in wrongdoing’.

But as the Daphne Caruana Galizia inquiry report had so damningly concluded (in the case of Abela’s predecessor, Joseph Muscat): Prime Ministers are, by definition, not only ‘responsible’  for the events that actually occur on their watch; but also, for their own role in the creation of the ‘political climate’ – including a ‘culture of impunity’ - that enables such events to occur in the first place.

Robert Abela is certainly no exception to this rule; and the Vitals/SHC deal is in itself a very good example, of precisely the sort of ‘political climate’ alluded to in that report. More than two years before Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale annulled the deal - attributing “fraudulent intent”, “blackmail” and “unjustified enrichment” to Vitals; and pillorying government for its “amateurish checks” before the contract was signed - the National Audit Offices had already found evidence of ‘collusion’ between Vitals and government on the hospitals deal: going as far as describing it a “predetermined” agreement.

So even if Robert Abela is technically correct, to say that he had no part in the actual drawing up of the contract; he cannot claim to have had no part in its implementation, for the past two years; and he certainly cannot argue that he was ‘entirely aware’, that there was anything suspicious about this deal, to begin with.

But the biggest problem remains Robert Abela’s claim that ‘People will judge me on how I offered a solution to the problem I inherited.”

On the contrary: Abela’s promises to ‘make things better’ have absolutely no value, in a country that lacks a system of guarantees that effectively investigates corruption, when it is identified as such by a court of law.  

And ironically, it is the lack of an anti-corruption prosecutor that makes the Steward-Vitals deal – even now, after its annulment by the courts - a political problem without any clear resolution.

As such, Prime Minister Robert does effectively have his own share of political responsibility to shoulder. It was his own government, in 2022, which refused to back a raft of legal proposals: namely the Nationalist Party’s package of 12 anti-corruption legislative tools - including the creation of a special inquiring magistrate, to focus only on corruption investigations.  

This is particularly relevant to the Stewards-Vitals case, because – once again – Abela seems to be using the ongoing magisterial inquiry into the matter, as a kind of ‘delaying tactic’ for an independent criminal investigation by the police (as the general public rightly expects).  

Besides: for too long now, various European reports have pointed directly at the shortcomings of Malta’s law enforcement and justice system.  As recently as June 2022, the GRECO evaluation report identified no fewer than 23 key areas, where Malta needed to introduce serious reforms to ward against corruption and maladministration.

These included issues such as ‘impunity’; ‘persons of trust’; the lack (or ineffectiveness) of proper anti-corruption structures; insufficient party-financing laws; the need to maintain a proper distance, between the State’s legislative and enforcement arms... all major shortcomings that were separately identified by the public inquiry into the 2017 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.  

As is so clear now, however: the most urgent of these proposed reforms was the appointment of an inquiring magistrate, with the power to initiate investigations on corrupt practices; and without having to be being solicited to do so by police reports (or complaint made by citizens.) 

This would ensure that cases like the Steward hospitals deal – and also the Panama Papers, etc. - would be immediately investigated by someone who enjoys security of tenure; and who is fully equipped by his/her own staff including detailed police officers. 

But with none of those 23 recommendations having actually been implemented, at any point in the last two years… clearly, Robert Abela has a lot to apologise for.