Abela needs a political reckoning with the Muscat era

The government and the PL must analyse what went wrong and reassure the public that they have learned from their past mistakes: especially when embarking on public private partnerships

In his address to parliament Prime Minister Robert Abela insisted that the National Audit Office’s report on the hospitals concession absolves him from any involvement in the Steward Healthcare deal.

“The report makes a clear distinction between me, Chris Fearne and Clyde Caruana, and the others involved in the deal,” Abela said.

It is true that the report places the onus of responsibility squarely on former minister Konrad Mizzi, for having misled the Cabinet about the side agreement he concluded with Steward in August 2019 (through which government would be liable to pay the company €100 million if a court annulled the contract.)

The Auditor General also referred to “the unorthodox dynamic that persisted between the prime minister [Joseph Muscat] and the Minister for Tourism [Konrad Mizzi], to the detriment of the Minister for Health [Chris Fearne]”: describing this as “a matter of grave concern”.

The NAO also said “the false sense of urgency” – by the government at the time - to close the deal with Steward, raised concerns about whether “government’s interests were served”.

But while Abela is technically correct to claim that the NAO has absolved him and his government, in terms of direct responsibility for these omissions: the claim still rings hollow on a deeper political level.

This is because for the past months, the Prime Minister has missed one opportunity after another, to face voters with his own political reckoning with Labour’s very recent past.

Let us not forget that the hospital scandal did not happen ages ago, but unfolded in the past decade: at a time when many present Labour MPs and Cabinet members - including Abela himself - already held prominent posts in party or government.

Simply put: it is not enough for Abela to distance himself from the nameless “others”.  It is also crucial for the Prime Minister, and the Labour Party, to hold these “others” to account.

The government and the PL must analyse what went wrong and reassure the public that they have learned from their past mistakes: especially when embarking on public private partnerships.

Even on a practical administrative level, the country needs reassurances that private public partnerships will no longer be based on the model that socialises risk and privatises profits. This is the only way for the country to move on.

The Prime Minister cannot keep playing the game of emphasising continuity, when he celebrates Labour’s (very real) achievements in the past 10 years; but then, distancing himself whenever the grave sins of the previous administration are exposed.

The Opposition may be over-reaching, in trying to drag Abela, Fearne and Caruana into the scandal over decisions which were taken by Konrad Mizzi, Keith Schembri and Joseph Muscat. But in the absence of a political reckoning within Labour, Bernard Grech’s line of attack – i.e., that Abela is compromised by a ‘secretive deal’ to protect his predecessor - is bound to resonate with the public mood.

While this leader recognises that, very early in his first term in office, Abela ditched Konrad Mizzi by expelling him from the parliamentary group, we cannot but note how he has always been economical in his words when explaining what made this character - once paraded as a star candidate, and an invaluable asset - unworthy of representing Labour.

One perfect occasion for such a reckoning was the parliamentary debate on the latest Auditor General’s report. Surreally, however, government Whip Andy Ellul insisted that this debate be held just a couple of hours after the publication of the 450-page report.

Understandably, Opposition Whip Robert Cutajar turned down the request, proposing the comprehensive report be discussed on Tuesday and Wednesday given its length. The government side refused, because the Prime Minister was going to be away on government business: but then, failed to propose alternative dates.

It makes no difference, however, if the NAO report is discussed now, tomorrow or in a week’s time. What matters is that the debate is serious and focused on the findings and lessons learnt.

Playing childish games is clearly not on, especially when the public rightly expects humility from the party in government, as this scandal continues to unfold.

On a different note, it is also irrational to expect the Prime Minister to order, or pronounce himself in favour of the arrest of Mizzi and Muscat. It is simply not his remit, and would be a dangerous precedent.

This case has caused enough smoke, to raise the suspicion of a fire. Within this context, one can understand the Opposition’s decision to file a police report demanding an investigation into a list of 37 people directly or indirectly involved in the annulled hospital privatisation deal.

But the facts at hand do not justify the inclusion of the Prime Minister along with the current Health Minister and Finance Minister, simply because they kept honouring the contractual obligations towards Steward.

One can easily conclude that the Opposition’s intention is to inflict maximum damage on Abela, by directly associating him with Muscat.

The link is tenuous at the very least but Abela is turning out to be his worst own enemy: because his reluctance to cut the umbilical cord – which, in popular perception, still links him to Muscat - is increasingly making him vulnerable to this kind of criticism.