If you want to know just how bad for Malta the Vitals/Steward hospitals deal was, don’t take the critics’ word for it. Believe Robert Abela. See what rot must lie beneath for his version to make sense.

Abela takes umbrage at being put in the same category as Joseph Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, the triad that landed Abela with the festering canker or, as Abela calls it, “the problem I inherited”.

At the same time, he’s keen to avoid any direct public criticism of the three. Within Labour circles, no one even dares raise the matter of what he’s going to do about the usual suspects whose names keep coming up.

Given the putrescent stench of bad governance, evasions and stonewalling silence uncovered by the auditor general, you’d think the worst is known. But Abela clearly doesn’t think so. He’s behaving like someone who’s afraid of making it worse.

In 2020, two months after becoming prime minister, Abela assured us that, had it not been for the pandemic, he’d have already resolved the hospitals deal. “We were getting close to a decision.”

It turned out the problem was intractable. The solution he was envisioning was illegal, according to advice he sought at the end of the first round of negotiations, having wasted valuable time.

From the governments’ actions we can see the size of the problem. The government did not bother constituting the project monitoring board for over two years after Abela became prime minister. One of the PMB’s main tasks was to review and discuss Steward’s plans for Gozo General, Karin Grech and St Luke’s hospitals. Another was the monitoring of the milestone-related developments.

But, as the auditor general acknowledges, the PMB had become superfluous. The radical problems with the deal made monitoring projects to be a side issue. There were no projects to speak of.

As for the maintenance monitoring board, responsible for reviewing maintenance works, it wasn’t set up at all for the period that the auditor general investigated. Government representatives said the negotiations made the MMB’s responsibility “secondary”.

By “secondary” they meant pointless. Everything had stalled, even though Malta continued to cough up and even increase its payments. The total, excluding salaries, came to almost €268 million.

Other intensive rounds of talks followed. Abela wants credit for his efforts. But there’s a reason why those negotiations absorbed so much energy. The deal was fatally stacked against Malta. Simply revoking the deal could have cost as much as €200 million.

Abela claims that he “always pursued the people’s interest” as though it demanded heroism on his part. But you can’t be a hero if you aren’t trying to save Malta from a villain. If Abela is the hero, who’s the villain who dragged us into the disaster?

The auditor general is clear. It was Mizzi, under the direction of Muscat, with Schembri playing a shadowy role, aided and abetted by institutions under their control.

Just how disastrous was the deal? From the start, the government was providing far more value in resources (some €42 million in 2016) than it was getting from Vitals (€32 million). For this 2017 addendum that was not authorised by cabinet, thank Konrad.

If the deal was so bad that Abela is keen to say he should not be blamed for it, there must be someone else to blame- Ranier Fsadni

Abela, who attended cabinet then, points to the non-authorisation by cabinet to exculpate himself. But he can’t have it both ways. If the deal was so bad that Abela is keen to say he should not be blamed for it, there must be someone else to blame.

It’s a deal so rotten that everyone is afraid to explain it. Malta Enterprise obstructed the auditor general. Muscat and Schembri barely answered his questions. Mizzi dodged him completely.

A deal that’s been so bad for Malta, and which can’t even be explained, is a deal that calls for public condemnation. And criminal investigation, of course. But first, resounding public condemnation to protect Malta’s reputation.

If you don’t do that, you have no right to speak of “pursuing the people’s interest”. Condemnation doesn’t interfere with police work. It’s a political statement about governance, not criminal conspiracy.

Abela, who likes to say that he’s not afraid of taking difficult decisions, has an easy one here. He needs to condemn, at the very least, Mizzi.

But our courageous decision-taker is afraid of the easy decision. He hasn’t even kicked Mizzi out of the Labour Party. Abela only kicked him out of the parliamentary group.  And, even then, Labour’s members on the Parliamentary Accounts Committee covered Mizzi’s back when he appeared before the PAC. Labour MPs protected Mizzi even when Abela knew the full extent of Mizzi’s misdeeds in the hospitals deal.

Passing strange, isn’t it? Labour, the specialist in demanding that its adversary, the PN, publicly distance itself from annoying journalists that aren’t even party members, can’t even bring itself to condemn and expel Mizzi, who’s dragged Labour’s name into the gutter.

Silence is a public statement, too.

There’s another silent man in this story. Muscat, for all his bravado about being ready to defend himself against all who besmirch his good name, has said nothing about Mizzi, whose documented actions show he’s done more than anyone to embroil Muscat in corruption accusations.

Yet, Muscat says nothing to suggest that Mizzi was out on a limb, operating on his own.

Why does Muscat tread so softly around Mizzi? And why won’t Abela bell the cat?

Because, if pressed, with his back to the wall, Mizzi will hiss and spit out, who knows, the explanation he’s withheld. He must be left alone, lest he make the festering problem ooze something worse.

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