Anatomy of collusion

Evarist Bartolo, the foreign minister, has drawn stiff criticism following his testimony at the public inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. So have his fellow ministers serving in Joseph Muscat’s governments. It’s now clear that they rubber-stamped the Electrogas power station project, and the Vitals Global Healthcare deal, without proper scrutiny in Cabinet.

They are criticised, however, for inaction. Yet the evidence points to something worse: collusion. The ministers actively looked the other way. They didn’t discuss the deals because they bit their tongue. They ignored stories broken by the press, not least Caruana Galizia herself.

And, by not breaking ranks on Panamagate and the VGH deal, they enabled attacks on anyone who insisted on having the deals discussed.

Let’s look at the pattern of collusion in greater detail, given what we can piece together from Bartolo’s testimony and what the Auditor General was told in his investigation of the VGH deal.

To begin, Labour politicians stood aside when a major government-defining policy was announced without their consultation. Bartolo says they knew nothing about the Electrogas deal or VGH.

That means that the power station project was sprung on the front bench during the electoral campaign of 2013. You wouldn’t have known that from the way that Bartolo attacked the Nationalist government’s own new power station project during that campaign itself.

Once in government, alive to the possibilities of corruption in power station deals, he had to have actively ignored the suspicions raised by the unfolding Electrogas deal and its multiple failures. Every promise made by Muscat and Konrad Mizzi was systemically broken (on the terms of purchasing fuel, infrastructure needed, milestones, and so on). Yet the Cabinet raised no questions, apparently.

Ignoring an elephant in the room is not inaction. It’s a decision to pretend it isn’t there. If you believe Bartolo, when he says that corruption only bothers those who do not profit from it, then he and his fellow non-corrupt ministers must have actively quashed a great deal of troubling thoughts.

Sometimes collusion went beyond the pretence that there was nothing to see. Chris Cardona, the former minister of the economy, told the Auditor General that he signed the Memorandum of Understanding with VGH at the request of Castille. Otherwise, he had nothing to do with it. Indeed, Malta Enterprise was against the deal.

Inaction? No, participation in the dismantling of Cabinet government.

It’s worse than that. The VGH deal involved, effectively, the privatisation of a major portion of our health care system. Some years previously, when still in opposition, Labour had run a scare campaign saying the Gonzi government intended to privatise the system. It was fake news. Yet much the same people who had professed scandal at the very thought, now stood aside and let it happen.

Principle apart, how could the ministers individually have missed that Caruana Galizia had broken the story of the MoU months before the tendering process was formally announced? There is a word for their silence, even informally among themselves. Omertà.

It’s the silence demanded by intimidation. Absence of scrutiny was accompanied by a ferocious reaction against anyone who demanded it.

Journalists were starved of information. If claiming ‘commercial sensitivity’ didn’t work with the appropriate authorities, then the documents — invoices, contracts, the MoU itself — were said to be missing; with no apparent sense that for State documents to go missing was a grave matter, potentially a crime.

Sometimes the results of journalistic investigations were used to ask the courts to order an inquiry. Then ministers smeared the investigations as partisan. That’s what Edward Scicluna, the finance minister, Cardona and Mizzi said about Caroline Muscat’s investigations into government corruption, when they repeatedly tried to prevent an investigation of their respective roles in the VGH deal.

Oh, and they said they couldn’t be singled out for responsibility. It was a collective Cabinet decision. They said that last year, not an epoch ago.

Now, Bartolo says it wasn’t discussed. Cardona disavows the deal as something spearheaded by Schembri. And the Court was not informed that Malta Enterprise itself had given the deal its thumbs down.

It’s fashionable for government ministers today to acknowledge that crooks took over the major government decisions. But the crooks couldn’t have done it without a lot of help from senior Labour politicians.

Bartolo says he didn’t want to end up like Savonarola, hung and burned. The first time he said that, it sounded like a weak excuse. Now it suggests he recognised the sinister nature of his bosses.

So he fell quiet. Then someone else was burned.

                           
                               

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