Sometimes Maltese idioms rush to the surface, hence the Biblical title.
Asked by Times of Malta to react to the ruling of the Appeals Court that apportioned to him a share of the cost of the lawsuit brought by Adrian Delia, Joseph Muscat said that the privatisation of the hospitals failed because of the malicious acts of “hidden vested interests”. Muscat didn’t specify who those interests were. It was enough for him to suggest they exist to deny that it was his fault the whole thing collapsed.
Journalists went with this to Robert Abela. They told the prime minister that his predecessor thinks “hidden vested interests” are responsible for the failure of the privatisation of three hospitals. What’s he – the present prime minister – going to do about that?
I’m sorry, what? Does that mean Robert Abela hasn’t asked Joseph Muscat yet who cost the country this ruin?
I know that sometimes I sound naive when I take quotes from these people at face value. Robert Abela’s ‘ask him’ was almost certainly not a piece of advice that was meant to be taken in any way literally. It was an equivocal remark designed to mean whatever the listener wants it to mean.
‘Ask him’ means that Robert Abela does not accept Joseph Muscat’s claim that the collapse of the hospitals privatisation is the fault of anyone other than Joseph Muscat. Robert Abela thinks it’s Joseph Muscat’s fault because though Robert Abela often looks like one, almost always speaks like one, and acts as if he was one, he is not a complete idiot. He doesn’t want to be quoted saying that Joseph Muscat is responsible for the collapse of the grand hospitals project because of the party backlash he would get. But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to make Joseph Muscat’s case for him either.
Yet it’s hard to determine where Robert Abela’s red line is. He is determined to avoid a prosecution of Joseph Muscat. He lashed out at the judiciary to warn them off. He didn’t need to lash out at Angelo Gafà or Victoria Buttigieg. Whether it was enough for him to press upon them his wishes privately or they understood what they needed to do without needing to be asked, Abela seems reassured they won’t have Joseph Muscat prosecuted.
But. Robert Abela is worried that the public might begin to understand just how rotten the hospitals deal was and some errant police inspector might feel sufficiently encouraged to overcome the inertia and the omertà and force the issue with handcuffs and charges. Abela is covering all bases. He is looking to discredit the judiciary just in case some magistrate’s inquiry demands Muscat is prosecuted. And he is looking to scare the judiciary to make sure that if that were to happen no judge does anything about it.
That puts Robert Abela firmly in Joseph Muscat’s camp. And yet it seems Robert Abela is not prepared to do anything and everything for his former boss. He didn’t continue Muscat’s line yesterday when asked for his interpretation of the ‘hidden vested interests’ spiel. He didn’t speculate who Joseph Muscat might have had in mind. He didn’t confirm he too thought there were such interests that were not the government.
Robert Abela would do anything for Joseph Muscat, but he wouldn’t do that. Whatever that is.
Even more nuanced than Robert Abela is Chris Fearne. Yesterday he repeated his pledge of innocence saying that others (his prime minister Joseph Muscat and his squat thumb Konrad Mizzi) negotiated with the hospitals concessionaires behind his back. Now, Fearne assures us, no one’s doing that anymore.
Leave aside for the moment the question of how he can be sure of that. He didn’t know his prime minister was dealing behind his back when the prime minister was Joseph Muscat. Why is he so certain that Robert Abela is any different? What gives him the confidence that a government which denies its predecessor has anything to answer for knows to do things differently now?
Consider instead the significance of the repetition of this ‘dealing behind my back’ line of defence. There’s much that is implicit within it. At face value, Chris Fearne pledges his honesty, distances the dishonest dealings he was not aware of, effectively claiming that had he known what was being done behind his back he would have put a stop to it.
That’s one thing he’s saying.
The other thing he’s saying without needing to use words for the purpose is that since he does the right thing and the negotiating was happening behind his back, then it must follow that the negotiating that was happening behind his back was not the right thing. It was the wrong thing.
Chris Fearne is willing to plead his innocence and protect his entitlement to power. But that does not mean that he will assume responsibility for Joseph Muscat’s actions. As far as Chris Fearne is concerned the “hidden interests” Joseph Muscat spoke of are no one other than Joseph Muscat and Chris Fearne does not mind one bit that we think that.
The cliché metaphor would be to say that Robert Abela and Chris Fearne are walking a tight rope over lava. They lurch to one side, and they lose their right, as they see it, to keep the badges of sheriff and deputy. They lurch too far to the other side and they risk being dragged down as manifest accomplices of Joseph Muscat’s wrongdoing.
A tightrope is too stable, too much of a certain and safe road, for the metaphor to fit the sheer precariousness of their situation.
If Malta Today is right, the only thing keeping Abela and Fearne politically alive is the brute bluntness of their denial. Their feet are consumed in the pyre and yet they smile serenely, content that for 10 years the government they belong to, got away with so much, they can be certain they can still get away with anything.
But when Robert Abela told the press asking him what he made of Joseph Muscat’s distracting tactics, to ‘ask him’ he let us in to his nervousness. He doesn’t seem so sure of himself anymore.