We need to hear Labour dissenters, more | George Vital Zammit

Public Policy analyst Dr GEORGE VITAL ZAMMIT, of the University’s Political Science Department, argues that the recent Vitals-Steward court ruling may well prove a turning point in Maltese politics: emboldening government’s internal critics to ‘speak out more’

George Vital Zammit
George Vital Zammit

In June 2022, you wrote that: “People will trust the PN again when they see [it] working together ‒ one party, one goal.” That was before the Vitals-Steward verdict, which seems to have offered the PN the opportunity to finally ‘unite’. First of all: do you agree that this verdict represents something of a ‘turning point’, in this regard?

I do agree, yes. The Vitals ruling certainly seems to have injected a bit of confidence, into an Opposition party that was otherwise almost becoming… ‘irrelevant’ might not be the right word; but it clearly lost the impetus that it once had.

In fact, last month’s MaltaToday survey revealed that the PN is lagging behind the cohort of ‘non-voters’, for the first time ever. Then again, however, that around a month ago; and the Vitals verdict came out later, on February 24. And in all probability, one might look back at that date in future, and see it as a pivotal moment for a ‘comeback’.

But it’s too early to tell. The next election is still far away; and a week is a long time in politics. Nonetheless, I have already seen signs of regrouping. For the past 10 days, the leader of the Opposition and his predecessor have always been seen close to one another;  they have supported each other; addressed press conferences together… and yesterday [Thursday] they went together to Charles ‘Il-Barri’ Bar [in Mgarr], in a show of solidarity to its owner.

On all those occasions, Dr Bernard Grech and Dr Adrian Delia were always seen together. Now: they themselves are both very much aware that they NEED to do that, in order to heal the wound caused by the 2020 Delia ‘coup’.

So the question is not whether there is any attempt, on their part, to put on a ‘show of unity’; but rather, whether it’s actually working, or not.

And from what I see on social media, and other sources… it does seem to be working. There has been a very much-needed resurgence of confidence, within the Nationalist Party: and not just because of the behaviour of Dr Grech and Dr Delia, either.

One other important effect of the Vitals ruling, is that it has shown that the PN was on ‘the right side of history’. If you look back at the historical milestones of the nation: the party that was on the right side of history, is usually vindicated.

Now: the vindication itself might come late in the day. Today, for instance, we can look back at [former PN leader] Dr Simon Busuttil, and conclude that he had been right on a quite a few things. He didn’t win any elections; but history has nonetheless proven him right... whereas his political adversary, Dr Joseph Muscat – who did win elections – is now referred to, by most media outlets, as a ‘disgraced former Prime Minister’. And that seems to have stuck.

So yes: looking back, this may well prove to be a pivotal moment, in Maltese politics.

It follows, then, that the Labour Party was on the ‘wrong side of history’ (not just on the Vitals issue; but also on the issues raised by Simon Busuttil before the 2017 election). Do you think, then, that the Vitals ruling will prove a turning point for the PL’s political dominance, too?

Let me put it this way: Labour has consistently shown that – irrespective of the leader – the party itself is well-organised; and its machinery and administration are both on a strong footing. As such, its electoral success doesn’t depend so much on  the ‘identity of the leader’...  right now, for instance, I can easily envisage the PL being led, just as successfully, by someone other than Dr Robert Abela.

Because whoever becomes leader of that party, will automatically enjoy the support of a well-organised, well-oiled – even from a financial point of view - party organisational structure. This was, in fact, the ‘earthquake of change’ promised by Joseph Muscat in 2008. He was not just referring to changes in the Labour Party’s economic policy-direction... but also, to the party’s structural organisation. Bear in mind that Muscat went on to abolish the post of ‘secretary-general’; he introduced a ‘CEO’; and implemented a number of other, massive changes.

But – to come back to your question – there might be a rift [between Joseph Muscat and Robert Abela] that is slowly opening, now. Because the Vitals verdict has implications, not just for the former leadership; but also on the present administration.

Dr Muscat’s defence, so far, has been to claim that Cabinet had been informed, and consulted, about what was effectively a ‘collective decision’. And that didn’t go down too well with Prime Minister Abela: who reiterated, to a number of your colleagues, that: ‘No, Cabinet was not informed’; and that he found himself presented with a ‘fait accomplit’, when he became Prime Minister.

And I think that this ‘contestation of views’ might be opening a rift of credibility, as well. Bear in mind that, up to now, it has remained only at the verbal level. But when the results of the magisterial inquiry, initiated by Repubblika, eventually come out... naturally, I don’t know what those results will be; but they might serve to rub further salt into the wound. Because unlike the Vitals case, which was in the Civil Court: the magisterial inquiry might lead to criminal implications.     

Obviously, however, we shall have to wait for the inquiry’s actual conclusions. But there is a chance – possibly, in the next few months – that, whilst the Opposition might be slowly regrouping, Labour might start showing its first signs of ‘cracks’...

When you say ‘criminal implications’, I assume you mean ‘for Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi, and the architects of the Vitals deal itself’...


But the Opposition arguess that Robert Abela himself is responsible: because he was a legal consultant to Joseph Muscat, at the time of the contract; and because –as Prime Minister since 2020 – he could always have taken action to annul the contract himself. Do you agree, then, that this ruling has implications for the Prime Minister’s own credibility?

Yes, I think it does. Recently, I uploaded onto my social media stream – because I know that not everyone follows Parliament – the entire debate on a motion, initiated by Dr Adrian Delia in 2020, to take back the hospitals from Steward. And you can see, in that clip, how both [Health Minister] Chris Fearne, and Robert Abela, defended the contract in Parliament; and if they voted in favour of the motion, in the end... it was only after amending it (thanks to their Parliamentary majority), to remove the part which said: ‘Government is NOT seeking the best interests of the country’.

Looking back at that parliamentary session, today: you can easily see the irony. The court has now vindicated the PN’s position, in 2020. And what was said publicly in Parliament, back then, may well return to haunt government in future.

At the moment, I see Mr Fearne’s position to be politically more ‘fragile’, than it was before. Bear in mind that he defended Steward healthcare as ‘the real deal’; and – unfortunately, I might add – he was behind the project, every step of the way.

Now: there is no denying that Mr Fearne is hugely respected, for his work as a paediatric surgeon. I’m not contesting that in the slightest. As a politician, however: I think he missed a few opportunities to ‘stand up to be counted’. He chose to play ball – and was a great team player, for the Labour government – but at a cost: the cost of his own credibility.

And it was the same with the motion of no confidence in Konrad Mizzi [in 2016]. Mr Fearne always toed the government line. Now: you may well argue that this is understandable. I myself lecture about parliamentary procedure; so I know that the role of the Government Whip is precisely to give instructions to MPs, on how to vote.

Unless there is a Free Vote granted, MPs are generally expected to ‘toe the party line’. And besides: I can also understand that MPs – who don’t even have any research assistants, by the way  – do not necessarily read every clause, of of every legislative bill that they vote upon in Parliament. To be perfectly frank,  it isn’t even humanly possible: and in most cases, it shouldn’t even be necessary.

But what we are talking about here is... big. Huge, in fact. It will probably go down in history as one of the greatest frauds – or ‘swindles’: call it what you will – ever perpetrated against the Maltese people.  And for politicians like Mr Fearne to have to look at themselves in the mirror, and say: “I was part of that”... it doesn’t go down too well, I should think.

Bear in mind also that many of the conclusions of the court verdict, had previously been expressed by the Auditor General’s report. There was, in brief a huge ‘doubt’ – a huge ‘shadow’ – hanging over this deal, right from the very start.

Am I to understand, then, that when this contract was first brought to the attention of Cabinet... not a single member of Parliament actually stood up, to challenge it? Even if there were so many unanswered questions: when the identity of Vitals was shrouded in mystery; when it turned out that they had no experience whatsoever, in running even a small clinic (let alone, three State hospitals)... in view of all this, am I to understand that no one in the Cabinet of Ministers saw anything remotely wrong, with a contract they themselves were approving?

You seem to be apportioning a lot more blame to Chris Fearne, than to Robert Abela. Is that how you feel?

Well: let’s just say that Mr Fearne disappointed me. I expected a politician of his calibre to show more ‘spine’, over the years; and to stand up to be counted.

Because my impression is that Joseph Muscat simply steamrolled this contract through Parliament; and – more damningly – that he was allowed to. And that is something that should never have been simply ‘accepted’... just because it’s the ‘party line’.

Coming back to your point about ‘Labour starting to show cracks’: right now, at least one Labour local councillor – Gzira’s Conrad Borg Manche – is going head-to-head with his own party: accusing Labour president Ramona Attard of ‘betraying socialist principles’, by supporting a project to build a petrol station in Gzira’s only public garden. Would you say that this, too, is evidence of an ideological ‘rift’ opening up with the Labour Party?

One thing I have observed in the past few months, is that: we had almost gotten used to the ‘hegemonic’ behaviour that Labour exerts. The Labour Party has its own fair share of ‘great thinkers’: people who are inspired by left-oriented politics; centrist ideals; liberal-or-conservative politics... whatever the case: Labour has those thinkers, within its fold.

But in the past, we had grown accustomed to the idea that – whereas within the PN, expressions of dissent are always more ‘visible’ –you would see a lot less of that, in Labour.

It seems to me, then, that the PL enjoys more ‘loyalty’, among its members and supporters. The diversity of views is still there... but then, ‘loyalty to the leader’ tends to remain supreme, in all instances.

In the last few months, however, I have seen people who are traditionally Labour – and will probably remain Labour – coming out strongly against their own party. You mentioned one example, but there are many others: including Xaghra mayor Dr Christian Zammit, and Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg.

These are all Labour Party mayors; and they’re all fighting their own battles, related to sustainability in the environment. Hondoq ir-Rummien; overdevelopment in Xaghra; and now, the Gzira public garden... these are all battles for the same cause.

But let’s stick with the Gzira example: to me, it is simply inconceivable that the government – having only just launched ‘Project Green’, aimed at creating new open spaces in urban environments – would be steamrolling ahead with plans to convert part of a public garden, into a petrol station. That runs totally counter to any form of logic: as such, people can hardly be blamed for assuming that, whoever owns that petrol station, must be ‘pulling strings behind the scenes’.

Even more unbelievable, though, is the fact that Conrad Borg Manche is not even finding the support of his own party, in his efforts to stop it. Quite the contrary, in fact: the Labour Party is behind this project, all the way...

And this shows, I think, that there is an element of resentment, towards the neo-liberal economic model – whereby consumption, and expenditure, are used to justify economic activity – that is starting to be felt within Labour, too.

Apart from disenchantment with the neo-liberal model: since 2013, the Labour government has also implemented massive ‘deregulation’, across the board. This is something that has parallels in the United States: where Republican President Ronald Reagan had famously said, ‘Government is the problem, not the solution’.

It's a very popular view, in the USA: ‘the less government you have, the better’.   And this is the approach that is now being adopted in Malta, too. Just look at the way the Planning Authority functions, for instance: it’s not just a ‘popular perception’, that the PA is not serving the interests of the people... but rather, the interests of certain individuals; or ‘special interests’.

And I think that people who traditionally militate within Labour – one might call them ‘Old School’; though it’s not necessarily the right term -  have now decided to... ‘call a spade a spade’. This country is not directing itself towards a sustainable future... and everyone can now see this: including the Labour party’s own people, who are beginning to speak up.

And I welcome that, because – like I said earlier - there are brilliant thinkers, within the Labour Party: and we need to hear them more.