The year 2021 was another challenging one for many of us in one way or another. The pandemic shows no signs of waning, our public administrators continue to mar everything they touch, and everyone is exhausted.
In times of crisis, citizens look to their leaders for reassurance and guidance. Instead, we have Prime Minister Robert Abela who seems to have had as wretched a year as the rest of us and who often chose to confront the nation’s predicaments either by dithering or by ignoring their existence altogether.
Some challenges, however, cannot be wished away by platitudes alone.
On 10 June, Robert Abela launched Malta’s economic vision for 2021-2031. In his speech, Abela repeatedly stated that Malta must “strive to be the best in the world,”. By the end of the month, The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) had voted to add Malta to its grey list.
Even before the FATF had announced its decision, the government had already embarked on a pre-emptive PR onslaught to mitigate the decision’s outcome and once the announcement had been confirmed, Abela went on the Labour Party’s television station to state that Malta “will emerge from this crisis as a more effective and attractive jurisdiction”.
Fine words surely, but, like most inanities, they never addressed the issue at the core of the FATF’s decision which was the fact that Malta had failed to implement effectively any changes in a way that would lead to tangible results such as the timely prosecutions of high-level money laundering cases.
Far from the economic utopia that Abela had announced in June, in the two months that followed Malta’s greylisting, 24 financial services companies had voluntarily handed back their licenses to operate in Malta and by October, a total of 45 companies had surrendered their licenses including Citco, a trillion-dollar hedge fund administrator.
The public inquiry into the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia
The conclusions by the board of the Public Inquiry 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.
The above, condensed conclusion alone should have been enough to spur a flurry of resignations and reforms but that’s not what happened. Immediately after the report was made public, Abela apologised for the state’s shortcomings that led to the journalist’s murder and said the government would hold public consultations on the implementation of the inquiry report’s recommendations.
However during the extraordinary parliamentary sitting held to discuss the public inquiry’s conclusions Abela failed to commit to a specific plan for the implementation of the public inquiry board’s recommendations, prompting international press freedom organisations to repeatedly remind the government that they’re monitoring the situation in Malta.
Troublemakers in parliament
Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis is reported to have shared hundreds of fawning WhatsApp messages with alleged murder mastermind Yorgen Fenech, and Minister Carmelo Abela was named by career criminals in connection with a bank robbery and was also found to have breached ethical standards when he spent €7,000 in taxpayer’s money on self-promotional advertising. Both have strenuously denied any wrongdoing, factual and/or ethical.
Then came Rosianne Cutajar who was embroiled in a €3 million property deal involving Yorgen Fenech and failed to declare her income from it. And finally, Education Minister Justyne Caruana resigned a second time from her cabinet position following a report by the Standards Commissioner that found breaches of ethics and abuse of power and abuse of public funds after she awarded a €15,000 direct order to her close friend.
The list of errant ministers is a lot longer, especially if one factors into the equation either sheer incompetence or total disregard for the electorate’s wishes.
What did the prime minister do every time he was confronted with these instances of (at best) gross ethical breaches? He did nothing whatsoever. When pressed for comment Abela often defended whichever MP was currently in trouble or sidestepped journalist’s questions altogether.
A mess to rival all messes
There’s no propaganda spin that’s going to get the government out of this debacle.
To date, we have learnt how previously hidden documents that Steward Healthcare filed in open court claim that the Vitals concession itself was the result of fraud and corruption.
We also know that not only did the government fail to act following the first damning National Audit Office (NAO) report about the deal, but added €20 million to Steward’s coffers in this year’s budget with the money going straight to Steward, under the terms of the concession, with no strict obligation to spend it on Maltese hospitals.
The Shift also calculated that by the end of 2022, taxpayers will already have paid over €300 million to Steward Health Care for the running of three state hospitals, while the American company has yet to fork out a single cent of the €200 million in investment it was contractually bound to pay by September 2018.
The second NAO report on this wretched deal was as blistering as the first.
Faced with this atrocious deal, the best response Robert Abela could come up with was to tell the press that the government will pursue “all possible legal action” against Steward Health Care if the company fails to honour its contractual obligations, something it has repeatedly failed to do since 2018.
In 2020, Abela countered criticism and scandalous revelations using hyper positivity as part of his narrative. This year he appears to have abandoned all pretences, avoiding any form of concrete response.
Too bad that it is the taxpayer that is footing the bill year in, year out.