‘Cowboys’, ‘untouchables’, and the value of human life | Jerome Caruana Cilia

Opposition spokesman for finance JEROME CARUANA CILIA argues that, by refusing to heed calls for a public inquiry into Jean-Paul Sofia’s death, Prime Minister Robert Abela is creating a climate of fear

Disclaimer: The interview was carried out last week before Prime Minister Robert Abela announced a public inquiry into the Jean Paul Sofia case

In the build-up to Wednesday’s Parliamentary vote, the Nationalist Party had been raising questions like: ‘What does Prime Minister have to hide?’; ‘What is Robert Abela so afraid of?’, etc. How would you answer to those questions, yourself? What do you think the Prime Minister is trying to hide, with his refusal to hold a public inquiry into Jean Paul Sofia’s death?

Allow me to take a step back, before answering, for the sake of context. This case takes us back to Saturday 3 December of last year; and you could almost say that it was more or less ‘unique’. Not because we’ve never had accidents at the workplace, before – on the contrary, we’ve had many: especially, in the construction sector.

But what makes this case so unique, is that we are talking about a building that collapsed, on government land, in the space of around two seconds... leaving a person buried under three storeys of rubble; and another four workers who were rescued alive, but with serious injuries.

In other words, it could have been much worse than it actually was... which was, of course, bad enough anyway. But let’s face it: we could just as easily be talking about five deaths, today, instead of one...

As far as I can see, this already makes this case rather unique: even in terms of how it factually unfolded. But when you also look at the circumstances surrounding this tragedy: how a mother lost her only son... and how this incredibly brave woman, Isabel – together with the father, John – were reduced to having to practically beg for justice, in tears, to no avail...

This is, in fact, what I admire most about Isabel: that, despite all her grief, all the obstacles that she found in her path... she still remains focused, not only on demanding justice for her own son; but also, to ensure that – thanks to the recommendations that may emerge, from a public inquiry – similar tragedies do not recur in future...

Sorry to interrupt, but the background details are already widely known. What I’m asking you for, is your own interpretation of why the government is so reluctant to hold a public inquiry...

Well, the context IS important: even so that readers understand exactly what we are talking about. But to answer you more directly: logic dictates that – if you have nothing to be afraid of; if you have nothing to hide; if you have nobody to ‘cover up for’ – you should have no problem opening a public inquiry.

Not just to accede to the grieving parents’ demands;  but also, to look into the political and administrative factors which may have contributed to the tragedy... with a view to eventually drawing up recommendations, on a broader level, so as to to prevent such accidents from happening again.

Because as you know, a public inquiry goes into a number of aspects, that are not necessarily considered in a magisterial inquiry...

I’m not so sure about that, actually. You’re talking about ‘public inquiries’ as though they are a standard feature of Malta’s public administration. But they’re not. There has only ever been one, in recent years– the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder – and it was set up entirely on an ‘ad hoc’ basis. There are, in fact, no regulations governing how (or even when) such inquiries are to be conducted...

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t happen at all, though..

No: but it does suggest that you are turning the ‘exception’, into the ‘rule’...

But that’s the whole point, right there! There have been so many accidents, in the construction sector; and so many people have died – Maltese, and foreigners; under different circumstances – that it it is surreal, how the government still refuses to open a public inquiry, in spite of everything.

In fact, one of the arguments raised by Isabel Bonnici – and which also arises logically, from the facts of the case – is that: had there been a public inquiry following the death of Miriam Pace [in 2020], it might have been possible to learn from the conclusions of that inquiry;  and maybe this latest tragedy might have been avoided, to begin with.

This is why it is so important to hold a public inquiry today: now, and not later. Because, if the Prime Minister wasn’t so hard-headed – and hard-hearted – that, for whatever reason, he doesn’t want to hold one... it is clear that he is trying to cover up for someone.

That only brings us back to my original question. Who do you think Robert Abela is trying to protect?

Obviously, I am not the type to speculate. I prefer basing myself on facts; on experience; and on logic. And all three of those things tell me that, if the Prime Minister has spent all these months, obstinately resisting calls for a public inquiry – when practically all the people of Malta and Gozo, are united against him: all those civil society organisations, such as Graffitti, Repubblika, The Christian Workers’ Movement, etc.... and even former Labour Ministers such as Evarist Bartolo: who not only criticised his own former government; but he even reminded Robert Abela that (words to the effect of): ‘The Labour Party was founded, more than 100 years ago, to protect the rights and safety of workers...”

When you have all those people, publicly urging the PM to hold a public inquiry; and yet, he still continues to stubbornly refuse, at all costs.... under those circumstances, I have no hesitation is saying that is ‘covering up for someone’l that he’s ‘got something to hide’. And I’m saying that clearly, and unequivocally...

And yet, we are still no closer to identifying the individuals concerned. So let me be more specific. We already know the names of the businessmen who were awarded the concession; as well as the architect; the contractors, and so on. Are these the people you think Robert Abela is trying to protect?

That’s the direction that logic points towards...

In that case – and this is a Devil’s advocate question, by the way; this newspaper is editorially in favour of a public inquiry – how do you respond to Abela’s argument that (to paraphrase): ‘We don’t need a public inquiry, because the magisterial inquiry will establish who is, and who is not, guilty for what happened”?

Ah, but that’s a deceitful argument by the Prime Minister. He knows, as well as I do, that a public inquiry would be expected to delve into other matters, apart from just the question of ‘criminal culpability’. In fact, there is a whole list of questions that I would like to see answered – and which can only be answered by a public inquiry; because they go beyond the inquiring magistrate’s remit.

One of them is: on what criteria, exactly, was the land in question given as a concession, by INDIS Malta (the government company operating industrial parks), to two businessmen? What sort of due diligence was carried out, on the individuals concerned? What sort of ‘surveillance’ did INDIS Malta carry out, on a project that was taking place on its own land? Was there even any kind of surveillance, at all?

But there’s more. When did the Prime Minister first get to know the people involved, on a personal basis? How did he get to know them? Did he ever have business relations with them? Were any promises ever made...?

Now: if we are ever to get answers to those questions... it can only realistically be through a public inquiry. They will certainly not come from any magisterial inquiry.

Besides: there are other reasons why a magisterial inquiry is no substitute for public one. Let’s look at the numbers involved. And just to make sure that nobody picks on me, over any incorrect statistics: I have a document here, with all the relevant information. [Reading aloud] ‘Between 2017 and today, there have been 59 magisterial inquiries into accidents on construction sites. Of these, 60%  are still ongoing...’

In other words, out of 59 inquiries, in six years... only 25 have been concluded. The remaining 34 are still under way, as we speak.

So even from this perspective: the Prime Minister’s argument that ‘there cannot be a public inquiry, because there is already a magisterial one’, just doesn’t hold water. Everybody knows that they are two different types of inquiries; with different remits, and which will come to different types of conclusions.

At the same time, those 59 inquiries also attest that such tragedies are not quite as ‘unique’ as you earlier described them. At the risk of digging up ancient history: in 2000, an elderly Sliema woman was buried under the rubble of her own home, in a case that foreshadowed the death of Miriam Pace, 20 years later. Then as now, there were no public inquiries; and the family had to wait decades, for justice...

Well, I can’t really comment on something that happened that long ago. Bear in mind that I did my First Holy Communion in 1996!

Fair enough. My point, however, is that – admittedly, before your time – the Nationalist Party also has a history of its own, when it came to ‘covering up’ for people (and ‘accidents’) in the construction sector. And to this day: while the PN calls for reforms, in this sector... it stops short of suggesting anything that may actually rock the comfortable ‘government/construction lobby’ tandem. How, then, can the PN claim to be credible on this issue, today?

As I just said, I cannot comment on things that happened before I entered politics, with the Nationalist Party. I am aware that things may not have been ‘perfect’... but I won’t comment further than that, about the past.

What I can tell you, however, is about the Nationalist Party, as I see it today; and from my own perspective, as someone who has been militating within it, since around 2012.

Let me be clear: the Nationalist Party is not against ‘construction’, in itself. We all agree that the sector is important; because it contributes to the economy – although maybe not quite as much, as some people seem to think – and also, because it employs so many people.

What the Nationalist Party is completely against, however, are the ‘cowboys’, and the ‘untouchables’... in other words, all those who think that they are some kind of ‘gods’, in this sector; and not just in this sector, mind you. But it does seem to be a particular problem, within the contruction industry.   

Because unfortunately, construction is also a sector where – when you have ‘cowboys’, and ‘untouchables’, who think they can do whatever they like  -  not only does it lead to unfair competition, and the lack of a level playing-field, and all that... but it also leads to accidents like the one that cost Jean Paul Sofia his life.

This is, in fact, yet another reason why a public inquiry has become so urgent; and it was even a point raised by MaltaToday, in one of your recent editorials. Another thing that a public inquiry – but not a magisterial inquiry – can do, is analyse the conclusions of all past inquiries (i.e., the 25 that have so far been concluded) to determine whether there is any kind of ‘pattern’, linking all the different accidents.

Because let’s face it: it’s not as though we’ve only had one or two. There has been almost an ‘epidemic’ of construction-related accidents, in recent years. And when you consider that there has never been a single public inquiry, into any of those accidents  - but instead, only magisterial inquiries that do not look at the entire context - and on top of that, we have also evidently failed to take into consideration all the conclusions, and recommendatons, of those past inquiries...

Put it all together, and I would venture to say that – from an administrative point of view, at least – it means we haven’t learnt anything at all, from any of those past accidents, and fatalities. So much so, that the pattern keeps repeating itself; the accidents keep happening; and people keep dying, as a result.

And now, a 20-year-old man has become the latest victim, of this surreal situation. So... it is really so much to ask, for the Prime Minister to hold a public inquiry? And was it really necessary, for the Prime Minister to so heartlessly reduce Isabel Bonnici, and her husband, to a state where they had to come here to Parliament, practically ‘begging’ for justice, for their dead son?

Well: on the PR front, I think we can all safely agree that things have worked out  disastrously, for Robert Abela. But now that the vote has been taken – and this will be my last question – how do you envisage the political fall-out, for the Labour government? Do you share the perception that this may be prove to be a ‘turning point’, in Abela’s  political fortunes?

Let me put it this way: what happened yesterday in Parliament will surely have been an eye-opener, to many. And this is what we have been saying for a long time. That corruption is not merely the case of a few people ‘taking kickbacks’ - which is obviously wrong, on all counts – but it is also a tax on us all.

And now, we see that it has also become a threat to our very lives. Yesterday, we were given a clear demonstration that life has no value, for those who perpetrate corruption and wrongdoing; and also, for those who defend it.

Yesterday, it was Jean-Paul and his family. Tomorrow, it could be me, you or any of our loved ones. And after yesterday, many are feeling afraid. Afraid that, if something tragic were to happen to them... the truth will never be allowed to emerge: because the government evidently attaches more importance to ‘defending corruption’, than to ‘the value of human life’.