Muscat in Smash TV interview: dog-whistle politics in the war against ‘the freemasons’

Former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s Friday night Smash TV interview marries denials with a threat to come back for his adversaries

Joseph Muscat (right) with TV host Manuel Cuschieri
Joseph Muscat (right) with TV host Manuel Cuschieri

Joseph Muscat sat down for the easiest interview of his life. Manuel Cuschieri, the longtime Labour radio broadcaster, eased him into a Smash TV chair from which both could read from the classic Muscat playbook: dog-whistle politics for his loyal supporters, and a challenge to his adversaries.

“It is a dirty game being played,” he said of the prospect that an ongoing magisterial inquiry into the Vitals hospitals concession might seem him hauled into court – a former prime minister under accusation.

“They want to see Muscat taken to court... I know that even if this happens, I know I have the people’s support, and even if I’m left alone to fight it, they would have wasted two years of my life for nothing to happen,” Muscat said, confident there was nothing to incriminate him.

“But I will sue those who have fomented this,” he said, accusing his ‘unknown’ detractors as “freemasons”, an establishment well connected to the togas in court.

“They know I took from them their entitlement to stay in power... it’s been the destiny of all Labour leaders, because Labour is the party of those who came from nothing. Mintoff, the son of a cook. Sant, the son of a civil servant. Me, the son of a salesman.” A fireworks importer of some wealth, he omitted. “They cannot win democratically, so they weaponise the judiciary.”

Muscat’s interview was strategic: deny any accusations of alleged malfeasance from his post-political consultancies, compare like-with-like for previous Nationalist administrations, and undermine his accusers.

As for him, he was a well-weathered boxer, a George Foreman-like character who had yet to deliver his challengers a lethal punch. “I talk sparingly... because I know I have the people’s support.”

“But when I get told I will be crucified like Mintoff,” he quipped, “I say I should be so lucky, so I tell them I want to be crucified like St Peter, with my head upside down.”

Private consultancy work

Muscat was categorical about his handsome consultancy earnings not being connected to a form of ‘kickback’ for political services rendered. “Some legal genius wants me to disprove their accusations,” he said, “just as if finding a knife in my kitchen is evidence that I intend killing someone.”

He claimed Accutor, the Swiss company formerly called Vitals Global Healthcare Europe that employed him as a consultant after 2019, had been threatened by former employees on a salary dispute, that they would go to the press. “It so happens my income tax forms are submitted to the House of Representatives, up to two years after my resignation from MP.”

Muscat claimed he did not know who Accutor had dealings with – namely, Steward, the hospital concessionaires who took over from Vitals in 2017 and happened to be paying the company millions – insisting that what he was paid for by Accutor was well-documented. “When COVID broke out, the agreement stopped because I could not travel. But I gave the inquiring magistrate documentary evidence, and there are witnesses to these meetings, including a foreign head of state.”

He spoke little of a handsome €12,000 a month consultancy for a loss-making firm belonging to the casino concessionaire Johann Schembri that deals in exotic birds. “Now that casino deal,” he said, “was approved unanimously by the House... so if that is a corrupt deal, then are we to say all MPs are corrupt?” It was a non sequitur for what on the surface looks like a financially unsound deal.

Muscat could always turn to the Egrant affair when needed, citing the magisterial inquiry that disproved his ownership of a secret Panama offshore company. “I don’t underestimate that there are forged documents in the evidence submitted, just as signatures in the Egrant affair were found to have been forged... they can reopen the Egrant inquiry, but this time, when nothing is found against me, I will personally sue those who called for its reopening.”

Muscat also claimed that his critics expected him not earn a cent in private work, listing all former prime ministers who had  reached retirement age by the time their tenure had ended. He was then, the only former PM under 60 who had to earn a living in the decades to come.

“So let’s mention former ministers like Austin Gatt, Tonio Fenech, Mario de Marco, Joe Borg, or Joe Saliba... all became consultants in the private sector after their political companies, with companies which also had relations with previous governments.”

Vitals inquiry and NAO report

With the Vitals magisterial inquiry ongoing, Muscat accused the magistrate of running an inquiry that was leaking like a sieve, and that had not heard him despite three requests for a deposition. “I asked for the magistrate’s recusal after seering her father and brother on Facebook exhorting the public to attend Repubblika protests,” he said.

He also defended the Vitals concession, claiming it was untrue he had privatised the health service. “The hospitals have long been in private hands,” he said, arguing that by dint of Malta’s hybrid system of private doctors in the NHS, public healthcare was not truly ‘public’. “It’s doctors who run the system, and you know how some doctors want their patients to be seen by them ‘privately’ to keep accessing the public healthcare system.”

He then claimed the Vitals concession had been spiked by medical lobby interests that “did not want the Americans upsetting them... because they were comfortable as they were, and resisted changes to epochal, bad habits.”

“Nobody can interfere with them. Mintoff tried it, the doctors striked, then Karin Grech was murdered, because of her father Edwin Grech, who was socially boycotted. He died without ever seeing justice... when someone was assassinated in our time, we saw arraignments.” He did not mention Daphne Caruana Galizia by name.

Muscat said the NAO inquiry into the hospitals privatisation had found errors that were “mainly down to the speed in the way the concession was carried out.” But when as PM he had been making his decisions, there was no benefit of foresight. “These NAO reports were certainly nothing close to the smoking gun found in the BWSC investigation,” he said.

At the end of the cordial interview, a classic question for the popular ex-PM: was he still available to give Labour his service? “I’m always there for the Labour Party, but I am confident that the party has no need for me... we must give space to the prime minister to work serenely. I know that there is a lot to be done for the coming European elections... we will always be the underdog.”