This is not just corruption; this is immorality | Adrian Delia

Opposition leader ADRIAN DELIA argues that government’s economic recovery roadmap lacks any clear sense of direction; while also tearing into the hospital concession agreement with Steward Health Care 

Opposition leader Adrian Delia
Opposition leader Adrian Delia

Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic included a number of financial packages aimed at re-stimulating the economy. However, these packages have been criticized (by the constituted bodies, among others) for overlooking certain sectors. What is the Nationalist Party’s position on the government’s economic recovery programme? 

First of all, the government issued three economic packages in sequence… but the first wasn’t really a ‘package’ at all. It was when government first introduced quarantine measures. At the time, it announced that anyone who was forced to go into quarantine would be compensated… but the onus was placed on the employers. So it wasn’t really a government aid measure. 

The second package was described by government as ‘very generous’, among many other adjectives… but my first reaction was that it wasn’t going to save or help anybody. All the same, government spent the next 48 hours talking about this package as if it were something out of this world… when we had the experience of other countries which were giving immediate, direct financial assistance to companies that were in danger of bankruptcy.  

Later, when government saw that all the constituted bodies had come out with the same position as ours - because we spoke to them; we didn’t just decide it was a poor package ourselves – it realized there was a problem. 

This is why I described the government as ‘reactive’: because it only took action after it saw that things were already collapsing. In business, your biggest enemy is uncertainty: not knowing how long the situation will last; whether you’ll be able to recover; what the government is going to do about it… and yet, government’s communication strategy was practically non-existent.  

That may well be an accurate chronology of events; but it tells us nothing about the situation as it stands today. There are companies – including some that were doing very well, until recently – that are suddenly not receiving any income at all. How does the PN propose to address this reality? 

Let’s start with the basics. Before looking at companies, or economic sectors, or anything else… we need to look at people. Human beings. We have 172,000 people who are employees. Of these 172,000, the government chose to assist only between 50 and 60,000. Let’s make it 70,000… it doesn’t matter.  

Fact remains that the other 100,000 workers are receiving no help at all. The government has abandoned them. Don’t these people also have families to feed? So… what message are they getting from government? “You’re on your own. See what you’re going to do about it, because the government of this country is not here for you...” 

That’s how these people are being treated. Now:  in order to help people, you have to understand the mechanisms of society, and the economy. If we’re talking about employees… what can be done to keep them in employment? You have to look to the needs of their employers, in all the different sectors.  

What the government told them, however, was that they will not need to pay taxes for the time being. But if these people are not even in business any more – they’re not earning anything; they have no revenue of any kind – what sort of ‘help’ is that? What good is a tax holiday, if you’re not earning any money to pay taxes on? 

Meanwhile, other countries adopted a different approach: targeting specific sectors that most needed assistance. To do that, however, you have to talk to people. We [the PN], for instance, have been holding two or three meetings every day, with all the various economic sectors. Some of them have not been given any assistance at all.  

At the same time, however, the country’s coffers are not an infinite resource. Can any government afford to offer limitless assistance to everyone equally? 

That is all the more reason to act now. As you say, government resources are not infinite: so if government doesn’t make this investment today… it will become more expensive to do so in future. Because if companies go bankrupt for lack of government assistance, their employees will lose their jobs. And that means they’ll up receiving unemployment benefits anyway…  

But given the reality of the current crisis… isn’t it also a fact that everybody is going to have to make sacrifices, sooner or later? 

Let me explain the difference between the government’s approach, and ours as Opposition. 

The government’s perspective is that: ‘I have this amount… so I will distribute it little by little so that it doesn’t run out’. But this is totally flawed. Government is sharing out assistance bit by bit, like it’s donating to charity… instead of investing the 100 ‘talents’ it has (to quote the parable from the New Testament).  

According to that parable, three servants were given 100 talents each; one of the servants buried his talents; another one squandered them… and the third invested them. 

The people behind Steward Health Care are thieves. They robbes us. Yet instead of taking them to court, we are rewarding them with 100 million of taxpayers' money

Now, government is saying that it doesn’t want to ‘squander’ its resources… that’s the word it’s using… so our position is: let’s look at how those resources can be invested instead. […]  So: where should we be investing? What are the aid packages we should be giving… the incentives, the ideas?  

Rather than leaving destiny take its course, it should come from us to work towards a new and better future, as from now. This is a crisis; but it is also an opportunity. What is our vision to understand tomorrow’s reality, and be prepared for it? How are we going to use this moment of ‘hibernation’, to make all the necessary changes to transform our economy… so that, as from now, we’ll be ready for a new world?   

So far, however, you haven’t given any indication of what the Opposition is actually proposing itself. If you had the reins of power in your hands… what would you do? 

What I’m already doing right now. I will continue to meet representatives of all the sectors – because there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution – to begin to understand what the ‘transformation agents’, in their respective sectors, really are.  

And to hear their ideas: because there are people out there who, if they know that there is a plan, are ready to make sacrifices… but government has to invest in these people, and in these companies.  

But isn’t it all about money, in the end? 

No. It’s all about ideas. It’s all about having a vision to be able to change your own destiny… 

What I’m asking specifically, though, is: would you give out direct financial assistance to all the sectors that are currently not receiving anything from government? 

Yes, but not only that… there doesn’t have to be only one form of assistance. There’s no point in offering to financially assist a company for only a month, for instance. What about the following month?  […] 

So what I’d tell these companies myself is: what areas do you need to invest in most? For instance, it could be digital technology, teleworking, etc. What sort of capital do they need? I [as government] would lend them the money myself, at 1% interest. And I would offer other incentives: for instance, if a company is able to employ people working from home, government could support one employee out of every five.  

The most obvious example, however, remains utility bills, which people currently can’t afford to pay. Why does the government refuse to reduce the water and electricity tariffs? Why did it first say: “It’s not up to me… but up to the Chinese”… but then it changed that to: “No, actually we do have a say…”  

Not only do we have a ‘say’, but we also have the means to do it. We are currently saving €96 million [on the cost of energy production]… so we have the capacity to either reduce bills for 50% for eight months… or by 100% for four whole months.  

But the government has dug its heels – either that, or it is simply powerless – because others are getting those €96 million… not Maltese families. 

Turning to the hospitals issue: the Opposition recently presented a motion to cancel the Steward Health Care contract, and invited government MPs to vote against their party line despite the fact that the contract entails a penalty clause of 100 million. Did you have enough fire-power to make such a demand from government MPs?  

Let’s clarify the situation first. This issue started in 2015. In reality it started even earlier; but we didn’t know at the time, because a company [Vitals Global Healthcare] that had only just been registered was given – on its second day of operations – a Memorandum of Understanding with the government, despite the fact that the call for tenders hadn’t even been issued yet.  

So it was already operating, and collecting funds, to apply for a tender before it was even made public. This is the ‘justice’ we are talking about here. 

The contract itself was signed in November 2015. As a result, the company was given three hospitals, which they were supposed to invest in… and yet they had absolutely no experience in the sector. They had no hospitals, no clinics, no pharmacies… and yet, strangely enough, out of all the companies around the world that are capable of managing hospitals, the government saw fit to choose this one.  

So who were these people? They were fraudsters. Fraudsters. The CEO, Ram Tumuluri, was facing fraud allegations in various countries. Let’s just say he’s a colourful character. But the point is this: if this deal was successful, Tumuluri was supposed to get 6 million. But in reality, the deal failed. These people had no idea how to run hospitals, and the company went bankrupt. 

What was government’s reaction? It should have told them: ‘Listen: we were going to give you 2 billion euros (over 30 years)… but you proved to be incapable, so pack your bags and leave. And if you ever come back to our country, you’ll have to pay back every cent you took.” And then, government should have acted to ensure that this sort of thing never happens again. 

But instead, they told them: “You’re not capable of running these hospitals… so can you find someone else who is?” And that is how Steward Health Care came into the picture. And once again, the new company was in financial difficulties. So again, they were supposed to invest €180 million… but they invested nothing.  

It’s not just me saying this, by the way: if you go to Gozo, you will see that they never built a hospital with 450 beds; and St Luke’s remains dilapidated to this day.  These were supposed to become state of the art hospitals; but they did nothing - and we started giving them money: €50 million a year, €60 million, €70 million… while they gave us nothing in return. 

But what about the 100 million penalty clause? 

You’re right to ask about that. Two years later – at a time when government knew that I had opened a court-case; it knew that the company was bankrupt, and that no work had been carried out on any local hospital…. What did it to? It told Steward: “if this contract is annulled by the law-courts… instead of paying the penalty yourselves, or giving back the money we gave you… we will give you a present of €100 million.”  

What madness is this? Why did Robert Abela, who was a lawyer in the prime minister’s office at the time, accept that the Maltese people will have to pay €100 million from their pockets to Steward when they fail? 

These people are thieves. They robbed us. Yet instead of taking them to court, we are rewarding them with 100 million of taxpayers’ money.  

This is not just corruption, not just illegality; this is immorality.