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I quote an excerpt from a report published by the Times of Malta yesterday:

“Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo has apologised for breaching the procedures of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) by sending questions to a witness before a hearing.

The Labour MP was rebuked by Speaker Anġlu Farrugia and faced calls from the opposition to resign last week for giving economist Gordon Cordina a list of “indicative” questions.

“It seems that I made a mistake and I apologise,” Bartolo said on Monday afternoon when questioned by Times of Malta. He said he would follow the correct procedures in the future.

The speaker ruled that while the committee can give a witness an informal indication of the line of questioning beforehand, an individual member of the committee should not do so.

Bank of Valletta chairman Gordon Cordina was among the witnesses in the PAC’s investigation into the contract won by Electrogas to build and operate a gas-fired power plant at Delimara.”

You can also read Manuel Delia’s incisive commentary piece about what Bartolo was caught doing red-handed. Both reports also point out that in his ruling on the matter, Farrugia vaguely suggested that perhaps, it is not the brightest idea in the world to ask Cabinet ministers to sit on a committee that is specifically meant to police how Cabinet ministers spend taxpayer money.

Bartolo describes his completely out of line decision to tip off a witness who was summoned to answer questions about corruption which is directly linked with one of the largest infrastructural projects in the country’s history as a “mistake”. Don’t forget that BOV, the same bank whose board Cordina now chairs, issued those massive loan guarantees when Electrogas’ financing was in trouble.

The Times of Malta’s translation is slightly imprecise in a way that makes a significant difference. The translated version in the online report states that Bartolo said “it seems” he made a mistake. If you listen to Bartolo’s actual statement in Maltese, what he does say is more along the lines of “if” I made a mistake, not “it seems” I made a mistake. It is even less of an admission than the translated version gives him credit for.

In other words, his initial response is carefully worded to suggest that it is not fully certain this mistake was made. He then apologises for it, and praises himself for never shying away from admitting he made a mistake before proceeding to go on a bizarre rant about how, if the Nationalist Party was still in power, we would still be using heavy-fuel oil and even praising the project for the benefits he claims it has bestowed on the country.

It seems Bartolo is developing psychic, future-gazing capacities in which he can glimpse what exactly the Nationalist Party would be doing at the moment if it had remained in government. It sounds so scripted it’s embarrassing.

You know, those same “benefits” from a project that involved so many shady interests that a public inquiry linked it directly with the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

The journalist who was asking questions, Times of Malta’s Daniel Ellul, diligently followed up on Bartolo’s pseudo-admission of a mistake by asking specifically whether he did, in fact, commit a mistake. Bartolo again follows up with more qualified statements like ‘if it results that I made a mistake, I have no issue with asking for an apology’.

Ellul then asks him again to clarify whether he is apologising there and then, at that very moment, and Bartolo says “yes, yes, that’s what I am saying” and then hurriedly says that he did make a mistake and that he is apologising for it.

If that was exhausting to read, you can imagine how annoying it is to be in the shoes of the journalist asking such simple questions and having to chase a Cabinet member for a simple, straightforward clarification about his own words. In these kinds of doorstepping scenarios, you often only get a chance at one question before the next journalist waiting in line gets to ask whatever they want to ask, so your main interest would be to get a concrete answer to that one question.

Of course, Bartolo’s statement is entirely divorced from reality. A good follow-up question, if there was any room for it, would have been to ask the minister how deliberately writing up questions about what is going to be discussed in a sensitive PAC meeting and sending them to a witness, an act which the committee has never publicly referred to as part of the process of any of the many hearings which I’ve followed, can somehow be construed as a mistake.

The connotation Bartolo tries to insert here is that this blatant breach of established protocol was somehow accidental and done with the best of intent (hence Bartolo’s later pep talk about the importance of carrying out the committee’s work diligently). In other words, at best, it is either an admission of severe incompetence on a PAC investigation that has been so far fraught with delays and deliberate efforts to derail it or, at worst, an instance in which a minister was caught deliberately undermining a watchdog committee by leaking the questions that would be asked of a witness.

Bear in mind that Bartolo’s disastrous track record as tourism minister has been the subject of mockery for a reason. The Malta Film Commission and the Malta Tourism Authority, both directly within Bartolo’s ministerial remit, have become the subject of intense public scrutiny due to their lavish overspending and lack of transparency.

When Moviment Graffitti activists showed up in Comino on an early morning in the middle of the summer to remove deckchairs which had occupied the islet’s iconic Blue Lagoon, Bartolo had refused to admit that he had a conflict of interest when deciding on whether to extend the licences of operators profiting from public land in Comino after The Shift exposed how his family owns ferry businesses which profit from transporting tourists to the overcrowded Natura 2000 site.

Unless Bartolo somehow unknowingly unlocked his phone, found a text messaging app or email service to write up the committee’s draft questions, found Cordina’s contact point, and sent the information ahead of the hearing, all in one wacky string of mistakes, we are not simply talking about puffed up mediocrity here.

This is the backbone of the Labour Party’s governing strategy: underhanded manoeuvres which serve to circumvent democratic processes that attempt to scrutinise the actions of the government’s executive branch.

If it wasn’t so dangerous for these people to be in charge of our country, I’d say that this whole saga, which peaked with Bartolo’s half-assed apology, was somewhat hilarious.

I am ill-disposed for humour these days, though.

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