One of the government’s favourite platitudes in 2021 was “the institutions are working” and “let the institutions do their work”, while simultaneously treating with disdain and indifference those independent institutions set up to investigate and advise on how to better administer public affairs.
Notwithstanding the government’s contempt towards them and the various efforts to undermine them, these independent bodies have published significant investigations and recommendations.
The NAO report on Vitals Global Healthcare
In its second published report on the Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) hospitals deal, the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the government for failing to secure any of the capital investment milestones for the project by making a “poor choice” when selecting VGH as the concessionaire as well as failing to shift the project’s expenses onto VGH.
The detailed report clearly outlines how the deal was considered to be a burden on public accounts since the government guaranteed set amounts of revenue to VGH without securing commitment and the open-ended clauses which allowed VGH to default on the contract and get the government to pay up for exit clauses.
It also repeatedly observed that it was “unable to audit” the negotiation process due to failures in basic governance and transparency while also trying to make sense of conflicting versions of events.
The NAO had already identified serious deficiencies between the Maltese government and VGH over the concession of three of Malta’s public hospitals in 2020, saying that VGH should have been excluded from the bidding process altogether.
Meanwhile, the government repeatedly failed to take any tangible action to address the deficiencies outlined in the NAO reports but merely resorted to its tried and tested rhetoric with Robert Abela telling the press that the government will pursue “all possible legal action” against Steward Health Care if the company fails to honour its contractual obligations (which it has already failed to do).
The report by the public inquiry into the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia
The report by the board of the public inquiry tasked with determining whether the government was responsible for the conditions which led to the journalist’s assassination is perhaps one of the most significant investigations to have been published this year.
The conclusions, based on 93 court sittings involving 120 witnesses since the start of the inquiry in December 2018, found that ‘the State has to shoulder responsibility for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia’ and explicitly outlined how the State “created an atmosphere of impunity, generated from the highest levels in the heart of the administration of the Office of the Prime Minister,” comparing the outward spread of corruption to the tentacles of an octopus.
Not long after the public inquiry proceedings began, a concerted effort was made to try and discredit the inquiry. These included government officials and Labour Party mouthpieces repeatedly calling the inquiry a waste of time and that it was a “political exercise” that was biased against them.
Disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat brazenly questioned the legitimacy of the public inquiry in a pre-written speech when appearing in front of the board. His successor, Robert Abela announced that he will only grant a “one-time” extension for the board to conclude its investigation prompting strong reactions from the journalist’s family, the Council of Europe, and international press freedom organisations.
Nevertheless, the board successfully concluded its investigation, published a ground-breaking report, including the central conclusion on the role political propaganda played in her death, and made several key recommendations, none of which the government has yet implemented.
Reports by the Standards Commissioner
The most recent report by the Standards Commissioner into a €5,000-a-month contract that Education Minister Justyne Caruana handed to Daniel Bogdanovic, led to Caruana’s resignation.
Other significant reports included the ethics breach minister Carmelo Abela was found to be prima facie in breach of ethical standards after the latter spent €7,000 in taxpayer’s money on promotional adverts. Another report also found an ethics breach by Rosianne Cutajar for her involvement in a €3 million property deal involving Yorgen Fenech, accused of commissioning the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Two separate reports also found that Joseph Muscat had abused his power as prime minister when he awarded Konrad Mizzi a €90,000-a-year consultancy job just days after Mizzi had resigned and was found to have once again breached ethical standards by defending members of his staff accused of detaining journalists after a press conference.
In the meantime, government whip Glenn Bedingfield went to great lengths to try and discredit the Standards Commissioner by accusing him of all manner of things including political bias, that he had failed to answer parliamentary questions that Bedingfield had made concerning recruitment practices at George Hyzler’s office, hypocrisy and even that the Commissioner’s office had leaked a report.
Report by the Ombudsman on the promotion of superintendents
The Ombudsman had ruled earlier in 2021 in three separate investigations that the selection process for the promotion of superintendents to the post of assistant commissioner was “vitiated and defective”.
The Office of the Ombudsman investigated the complaints filed by former superintendents Simon Galea and Carmelo Bartolo and Superintendent Ray D’Anastas and concluded that former police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar had led “a parody of a selection process”, choosing people based on personal trust rather than experience and seniority.
In response to the Ombudsman’s report, Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa and the home affairs ministry’s permanent secretary, Kevin Mahoney, wrote a letter to the Ombudsman saying they disagreed with his conclusions but would consider issuing a new call for applications.
The recommendations made by the Ombudsman are often ignored. Recently, principal permanent secretary Mario Cutajar took aim at the Ombudsman during a press conference about government action based on the Ombudsman’s annual report, by insinuating that the Ombudsman’s Office is failing to abide by its own standards by employing people on a position of trust basis – a practice that the Ombudsman has long criticised.