NEWS ANALYSIS | Sunday, 02 December 2007

All is forgiven, John…

Lawrence Gonzi publicly rehabilitated his former leadership rival and minister John Dalli with a token advisor’s post ahead of the coming elections. Was this Gonzi’s way of giving Dalli back his political legitimacy and close the chapter on the messiest affair he’s faced since becoming party leader? Matthew Vella reports

All is forgiven, John Dalli. But what exactly, has been forgiven?
The former senior minister who resigned under a cloud of unanswered insinuations, who alleged he was forced to walk the plank over nothing but unsubstantiated allegations, has been awarded an advisor’s role to Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, the man Dalli said had told him he could not have a minister “under investigation” in his Cabinet.
That was back in 2004, when Dalli faced a maelstrom of allegations, literally coming from all sides. Labour was harping on Dalli having used his ministerial influence to entice the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines to choose his son-in-law’s firm Gauci Borda Shipping as their local agents; soon after, The Times uncovered a Lm40,000 spending spree on airline tickets for Dalli’s foreign ministry from a company related to Dalli’s daughter, Tourist Resources Ltd; and then, the final nail in the coffin, the Joe Zahra report – a fabricated private investigator’s report. handed by Dutch firm Simed to Gonzi, claiming that Inso, the Italian firm which had been awarded a medical equipment contract for Mater Dei, had paid kickbacks to Dalli’s brother Sebastian, and to the daughter of contracts director Joseph Spiteri.
Three years later, Dalli has been rehabilitated by Lawrence Gonzi himself in a press conference held last Thursday in Castille, with Dalli’s wife and daughter sitting in the front row, and his personal assistant Frank Zammit observing proceedings. The set-up looked at best contrived, urgent, and hurried – why now, of all times, when Dalli had already had his name cleared of allegations of impropriety? Why is Gonzi, the man whom Dalli openly criticised in the last three years, taking him on as his advisor on finance and the economy? Does he need Dalli, does the party need his votes, or was he left with no choice other than to hold this press conference?
These are questions which may remain open to strong speculation. On Thursday Gonzi read out the entire Dalli saga from beginning to an end when there was clearly no need to; not when he was announcing a new advisor’s role for his former minister.
That he did, probably shows more of what Dalli actually wanted – a clean bill of political health signed by his former leadership rival; a sign to the party faithful that Gonzi holds Dalli in the highest regard; a cementing of party friendship ahead of the elections. Dalli must have demanded political rehabilitation – why Gonzi accepted is another question altogether. A political promise that had to be kept, electoral concerns, some form of ‘apology’ to quell dissent?
John Dalli, who fell out of favour with a party administration that had backed Gonzi’s leadership bid and whose strongman persona was touted as a liability within the party, was in certain respects a “wronged” man. He vacillated between insinuations and accusations and for the first time in their history of governing, a Nationalist prime minister had failed to stand by his minister.
Although his role in both the IRISL and airline tickets affairs can be argued to have been ‘impolitic’, there was never any form of judgment handed down to the minister on those counts. Dalli left office with guns blazing, pointing at Labour’s untiring campaign over the IRISL affair, and to PBS reporter Ivan Camilleri, the brother of Gonzi’s then communications coordinator Alan Camilleri, whom Dalli accused of having “kept up the attack on various occasions” by picking up The Times report on the airline tickets and feature it in the PBS news bulletin.
Dalli’s parting shot in his resignation letter alluded to a backstabbing from within the party itself – even close to the prime minister’s office.
So what became of these incidents which spelt the end of Dalli’s long career as minister and the start of a cold war between the two party strongmen?
Nothing, it would seem. On the IRISL affair, Gonzi declared he had accepted the minister’s explanation on the matter, saying the allegations had been “unsubstantiated”. On the Joe Zahra report, the private investigator was indicted for criminal charges just weeks after Gonzi handed over the dubious report to the Commissioner of Police – which meant that Dalli was never under suspicion or investigation on this issue.
And the airline tickets question too was left to die: because Dalli himself asked Gonzi in his resignation letter to refer the case to the Auditor General. Which Gonzi did, but not as an investigation into Dalli’s procurement of the tickets, but as a general exercise into the procurement of airline tickets by every single government ministry.
John Dalli – it transpired – had never been under any sort of ‘investigation’ by the Auditor General.
Even if it is arguable that Dalli should have been held accountable to these accusations by some formal arbitration, the fact that he wasn’t suggests a number of possibilities: either that the allegations were baseless, or that the government allowed its minister to drown under their weight.

So despite there never having been any formal, or informal, investigation of the former minister, last Thursday Lawrence Gonzi decided to declare a symbolic end to the Dalli saga. That is why the whole affair appears to be contrived – what was there to clear if Dalli had never been under investigation in the first place?
Gonzi argued that Dalli had been left “hanging” by the unfinished Auditor General’s audit into the procurement of airline tickets. True: Dalli himself repeatedly demanded that the audit be completed, but it was also true that the audit did not deal with him directly either.
That hardly mattered: Gonzi said he had written to the Auditor General on 20 July 2007 to inquire as to when the audit would be concluded. The problem was that Joseph G. Galea, the Auditor General, could not sign the report into finalisation. Since his second and last constitutionally permissible term had expired, Galea was not legally empowered to sign the finalised report, unless a new Auditor General is appointed to take charge.
So four months later, last Thursday, Gonzi decided to announce he was unilaterally absolving Dalli of any false insinuations levelled against him.
“I understand the suffering John Dalli and his family went through because of the lies and false insinuations. I believe that after years waiting for the report from the Auditor General, I must not let this situation drag on.
“Three years since his resignation, nothing has resulted from the accusations made against John. Now we are in a situation that until the Opposition corroborates the Auditor General’s appointment with the government, the report by the Auditor General will remain unpublished. And John is left hanging. This is unfair on John and his family.
“That is why I want to make it clear that every insinuation made against John Dalli and which could have brought about his resignation have been found to be unfounded and false.”
But how had Dalli been left hanging? Wasn’t it after all Dalli himself who called the Auditor General’s exercise just an “excuse” used by the government as the backdrop to his resignation when he was told by Gonzi, back in 2004, “I cannot have a minister in my Cabinet under investigation”? – probably referring to the Joe Zahra report he later passed on to the Commissioner of Police.
And what sudden power had been conferred upon the prime minister to come to a conclusion and pass judgement on a report that has not even been made public, let alone investigated Dalli in the first place? What sort of judgement had John Dalli been waiting for? And why had Gonzi waited so long to re-integrate Dalli back into the flow of government business when there was no investigation anyway over John Dalli?
Such questions colour the mise en scène that speaks volumes about a strained relationship that has haunted the Nationalist administration since 2004. Awarding Dalli an advisor’s role did not merit a recap of his resignation ordeal. Indeed, when in previous comments the OPM has always refrained from commenting on the airline tickets saga for being “sub judice” – the term they used as a reason not to speculate on the unfinished auditor’s report – here was Gonzi exonerating Dalli from “unfounded and false insinuations” over a report which is not yet even public, and which won’t be public until a new Auditor General is appointed to sign off a pedantic exercise into the procurement of airline tickets.
Or is it the Nationalist party that needs John Dalli’s votes ahead of the general election, the preferred way having been a symbolic post of ‘closeness’ to the prime minister – that of advisor, no less – to suggest rapprochement, friendship, unity and rehabilitation between the former leadership rivals?
And yet there is something prophetic about this reunion of sorts, something Dalli told this newspaper back in 2005 when he portended what the PN needed to win the next general election: “In my opinion this can happen by fuelling a policy of economic growth and ensuring that our house, the party house, is a united home geared to govern.”
For there is no doubt that Lawrence Gonzi and John Dalli are not the best of friends. Dalli himself has made it a point to make his dissent public in the past three years, notably last July when he demanded an “apology” from “those who dirtied their hands” in the Mater Dei contract concerning the fabricated Simed, declaring the matter was “not closed”.
He poured cold water over the Prime Minister’s grandiose opening of Mater Dei hospital, just days later saying that it was the new finance ministry, under Gonzi’s stewardship, that had allowed Swedish construction giant Skanska to overrun the previous Lm93 million price tag on the hospital. “The Finance Ministry could have sought my advice during these negotiations as the one with a deep knowledge about this situation, but as at that time I was out, they did not. It is their (and the country’s) loss because if they had sought advice, we would surely have saved the country many millions.”
He said it was Gonzi who wanted him out of the Cabinet when Simed gave the Prime Minister a private investigator’s report alleging kickbacks from Inso. “This report was believed, was kept hidden from me and was thought that it would be the basis of an investigation against me… Before the investigation could start, the Prime Minister wanted me out of his Cabinet (it was also an opportunity for those who wanted to take over full control of the party and the government, and who saw me as a threat to their designs).”
And he complained about waiting “three years for an apology from those who dirtied their hands in this affair. This matter is by far not past history and not closed.”
So here is the apology. A nod of approval from Gonzi, at least at face value, that quells Dalli’s unrequited past. Gonzi could have waited longer if he so wished – if he waited so long after Joe Zahra was found guilty last year, he could have waited until a new Auditor General was appointed to sign the report.
Instead he doffed his cap at Dalli now. The former minister must be utterly delighted.


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