[ANALYSIS] As election looms, will Abela raise or lower the bar?

Robert Abela raised hopes of a general clean-up of the mess inherited from his disgraced predecessor. His efforts paid off in ensuring Malta is not grey-listed by Moneyval. But his yardstick in addressing blatant abuse – ranging from crass nepotism to million-euro contracts – suggests he is still fire-fighting and with elections looming on the horizon, he may be increasingly tempted to lower the bar

In a damning 177-page report, the NAO this week said that St Vincent de Paul, a government institution for the elderly, the Ministry for Family and Social Solidarity and the Department of Contracts, “acted in breach of legislative provisions” when they sanctioned a negotiated procedure for the management of the new hospitality blocks on the basis of urgency, breaking public procurement regulations in the deal. The NAO was “incredulous” at the role played by parliamentary secretaries politically responsible for the project, saying “their failure to enquire as to the regularity of this procurement is in clear breach of their duty arising from the political post held.”

The contract was awarded to a consortium owned by the DB Group and James Caterers. Only a year ago the same office had cast doubts on the “regularity” of the tender for the disposal of the ITS site to the DB Group issued by Projects Malta. But the report was ignored, and that contract was never rescinded. Instead the Planning Authority will soon be asked to approve the mega-project set on public land.

Yet so far there have been no resignations and no assumption of political responsibility on the part of those involved.

Social Solidarity Minister Michael Falzon, who back then, was the minister responsible for the sector, shrugged responsibility. “I can only speak about myself, there was no political interference, at least from my end. The sector also no longer falls under my remit,” Falzon said.

Yet no attempt has been made so far to establish the trail of political responsibilities where the buck stopped. In the absence of the assumption of political responsibility by anyone, the government inevitably becomes collectively responsible for the abuse.

Erase the sin without punishing the sinner

This follows a pattern where wrongdoing is partly addressed without any attempt to establish any political responsibility, in a way through which the sin is erased but the sinners are not punished.

For example a €5,000-a-month sports contract awarded by the Education Ministry to footballer Daniel Bogdanovic has been terminated but the minister responsible has not even been reprimanded.

Subsequently, Adreana Zammit – the daughter of Transport Minister Ian Borg’s senior advisor – quit her role as a lawyer with Transport Malta in the wake of criticism that she was awarded lucrative contracts even before she graduated as a lawyer. Once again no attempt was made to ascertain political responsibility.

Such an attitude suggests that action is only taken when the culprits are caught red-handed and only when the contracts involve individuals and have no bearing on the relationship between government and big business groups. Because so far, in cases involving multi-million contracts like that involving St Vincent de Paul or the City Center project belonging to DB, rescinding the deals seems out of the question.

So far the only sitting MP to have faced a reprimand by Robert Abela was Konrad Mizzi. His expulsion from the parliamentary group signalled a clear departure from the Muscat years. It also sent a message to law enforcement that nobody enjoyed impunity. But even here, while his lucrative MTA contract single-handedly ordered by Joseph Muscat at the end of 2019 was rescinded, it was only thanks to an investigation by the Standards Commissioner that we learned that Muscat was indeed responsible for it. Yet even here, not a single reprimand was forthcoming.

The very basic

In the face of the constant spillover of scandals from the Muscat era, we are constantly reminded that the institutions are working, which is the least one expects of a functioning democracy. The fact that Abela keeps boasting that the institutions are working simply confirms how bad the situation was under his predecessor when the institutions were clearly not working.

And while the arraignment on bribery allegations of Keith Schembri affirms the principle that nobody is above the law, there seems to be a reluctance to uncover the extent of the corruption web, which enveloped the country and its institutions, also thanks to the poor track record in addressing structural problems by PN-led administrations.

In fact under pressure by Moneyval, the Abela government has gone further than previous governments, including those led by the PN, in addressing institutional shortcomings. In this way Abela has avoided Malta being grey-listed by Moneyval. The risk is that this certification will now will be used to whitewash an edifice whose foundations are rotten.

The political economy of corruption

This is because the same government, which takes credit for ensuring that the institutions are working, shuns any calls to investigate energy contracts, land deals and the operations of major player like the Lands Authority and the Planning Authority. While some key players sitting on decision-making boards have been reassigned to new roles, no attempt was ever made to investigate their responsibilities. And one cannot ignore the elephant in the room: that the major protagonists of Labour’s flagship energy project are embroiled in a suspicious web of secret companies and that the businessman who fronted the venture is in the dock for masterminding an assassination.

Moreover it remains unclear to what extent the attempted cover-up of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination is being actively investigated. So far the arrest of a former high-ranking police officer implicated in leaking information on the Daphne Caruana Galizia is the only encouraging sign on this front. But Keith Schembri’s mobile remains lost and Joseph Muscat still has to answer questions on when and how he learned about Yorgen Fenech’s involvement in the murder and when and how he learned about Fenech’s own dealings with Schembri.

Continuity or change?

One may argue that the buck stops with the police and the courts and the government’s job is that of ascertaining that the institutions perform their work in full serenity. But that ignores that the attempt at state capture was anchored in a political economy which may have been shaken but remains resilient.

The fear is that with an election looming on the horizon, the temptation to look the other way and to defend Muscat’s legacy will grow. Ironically by doing so Abela may end up affirming the collective responsibility of the Labour Party for what happened in the past decade, which is a pity considering the various positive social reforms carried out by this government.

And while Abela will probably comfortably win the election, this time round his hand would be stronger if elected on anti-corruption platform rather than as the continuity candidate as he presented himself when elected Labour leader in January 2020.