Joseph Muscat is no underdog

He is no longer the underdog he once was when starting out as Labour leader in 2008

Joseph Muscat does not want Magistrate Gabriella Vella to continue handling the hospitals inquiry. Last week he asked the constitutional court to remove her and reassign the inquiry to another magistrate.

It is almost as though Muscat is feeling the noose tighten, in the wake of details that have emerged about his business relationships after stepping down as Prime Minister.

Seeking the magistrate’s recusal is a last-ditch effort to stymie the hospitals inquiry, which was initiated four years ago at the request of rule of law NGO Repubblika.

Muscat has objected to Vella on the basis that her father and brother – lawyers with whom she previously worked in the family firm – publicly voiced their support for anti-corruption protests organised by Repubblika in 2019. He made other objections; but the above is part of the tactical rulebook to delay procedures or create the environment that makes it harder for members of the judiciary to work in serenity.

It is a tactic that Repubblika itself used to try and have Magistrate Nadine Lia recuse herself from hearing the case against Pilatus Bank, because of a family link to Joseph Muscat’s lawyer.

There is no doubt that justice not only has to be done but must be seen to be done. Any ordinary right-thinking individual must have the reassurance of knowing that the judge or magistrate is impartial, in any given case. Muscat and Repubblika have every right at law to contest the members of judiciary presiding over cases they are involved in; but such tactics in politically charged cases only serve to create an atmosphere of chaos that hinders justice, leaving behind only the political machinations of those involved. People are right to be confused.

Back to the Muscat issue; it is relevant to understand exactly what the magisterial inquiry Vella is conducting is about.

The inquiry is not about Joseph Muscat. It is about the hospitals concession agreement that the Muscat administration awarded to Vitals Global Healthcare.

This concession was struck down by the courts in February based on fraudulent behaviour and unfulfilled milestones. It is also a concession that has been lambasted by the Auditor General in three voluminous audit reports, which found among others that the deal was pre-arranged.

Obviously, the scope of the inquiry is to establish whether there was any criminal behaviour by all those involved in this deal, including former public officials who handled the contractual arrangements. It is within this context that Muscat and others, including Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona, become subjects of interest for the magistrate.

This is not an inquiry targeting Muscat specifically, but a wide-ranging one that is probing allegations of corruption in the award of the VGH hospitals tender.

But what is Vella’s role in the inquiry? At this stage, the magistrate has the task of gathering and preserving evidence that could be of interest to the case. It is on this basis that she will eventually determine whether any criminal action must be taken against the individuals and companies involved in the hospitals concession. She will not decide on guilt or otherwise but on the basis of evidence recommend whether any criminal action is due and if so against whom.

It would then be up to the police to prosecute anyone indicated by the magistrate or carry out further investigations.

If Muscat has nothing to fear, he should allow the course of justice to proceed unhindered. His appearance on Manwel Cuschieri’s Smash TV show last Friday was a desperate attempt to put up an extra judicial fight, by also tugging at the heartstrings of the Labour Party’s core voters.

Muscat pulled out all the stops to create confusion. He blamed an obscure network of freemasons and elite doctors, who he claimed did not want the hospitals deal to work. He likened his ordeal to the “martyrdom” Dom Mintoff and Alfred Sant were put through by their political opponents: but omitted to mention that neither of the two was ever investigated over corruption.

What we saw on Smash TV was a pale shadow of the man who inspired many to follow his vision, and who led the Labour Party to tremendous electoral success.

Muscat has every right to defend himself and challenge the judicial processes that concern him; but he can spare us the shenanigans of playing the pity card in public.

He is no longer the underdog he once was when starting out as Labour leader in 2008. No; Muscat was in a position that granted him immense power between 2013 and 2020 – a far cry from being the underdog – and what is under scrutiny now is whether he abused of that power, to enrich himself.

If there is an underdog in all this saga, it is the public that has been left without a promised state of the art hospital in Gozo, without a top-notch rehabilitation hospital at Karen Grech, and St Luke’s Hospital in the same sorry state as it was before the concession was awarded.