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Lessons need to be learnt

The GonziPN Govern­ment is boasting that it has served its term. Well done! In the modern political his­tory of our country, no other ruling party has been plagued by so much infighting, which generated so much political instability and consistently threatened to bring down the Government.

A number of public entities seem to be slipping into anarchy
- Joseph Vella Bonnici

The final, fatal blow came from Franco Debono, who possibly sacrificed his political career (and much more), to vote against the Budget.

In his Budget speech, a bitter Prime Minister sought to defend his Government’s record arguing that Malta does not need to change direction. This is surprising given that his party has elected a new deputy leader on the promise of change. “If people want a change we must show them that we are the change which is good for them,” said Simon Busuttil in his victory speech. Perhaps, he can enlighten us as to who are the “we” he is referring to.

One of Busuttil’s first moves after his nomination to the deputy leader post was to reach out to the party’s rebels. His efforts were quickly stopped by the Nationalist Party’s ruling oligarchy. Tonio Fenech, and the majority of Cabinet ministers that openly supported him, realised that a vote for Busuttil meant a vote for change by the party’s own councillors.

It is a pity that these consistent internal squabbles, and the arrogance of a small clique, have led Malta into a blind alley. After 10 years bulldozing its way, showing little respect for Parliament, GonziPN had the arrogance to expect the Opposition to save it from its own follies and vote in favour of the Budget Bill. From now till the March elections, GonziPN will seek to project itself as a united party. Whatever the result, the internal strife will get even worse after the elections.

This political turmoil diverted attention from the annual report (2011) prepared by the National Audit Office just when it started to make headlines. The report is another certificate of GonziPN’s mismanagement and the lack of transparency and accountability that rules in the public sector.

Moreover, it confirms the lack of respect shown by various public entities towards this parliamentary institution. Many of these entities see the NAO’s work as unwarranted ‘interference’ in their work rather than a managerial exercise meant to help improve performance.

Far from moving towards modern public management, with an emphasis on cost-effectiveness, customer-focus and outcomes, a number of public entities seem to be slipping into anarchy. In this day and age, it is just not acceptable to allow such malpractice as failure to provide timely and coherent information, invoices not being supported by a fiscal receipt, blatant infringement of procurement regulations, retroactive approvals for expenditure and failure to provide the necessary bank guarantees.

Those enterprises that have been denied a public contract for some petty excuse (such as late submission of a bank guarantee) must despair to hear how a selected few seem able to get away with so much.

Smart-island has a ‘state of the art’ hospital that costs hundreds of millions of euros but lacks a proper accounting and payroll system. Hopefully, it will not take another 15 years before such a system is in place so as to ensure that all payments are substantiated through proper documentation. Indeed, how many hours does one have to work to earn €35,000 in overtime?

Wasteserv is a horror story. What does it take for a six-month, €1m contract to bloom into a four-year, €29m contract? Little wonder that the NAO report concludes that “the inadequacy of the overall internal controls is a major concern”.

Then we have the Arriva case. The report states that the compensation to be paid by government amounts to €79.8 million over a 10-year period.

It adds: “The considerable increase of €17.9 million in compensation, amounting to a variance of approximately 29 per cent, over and above what was originally agreed upon in the contract dated November 20, 2010, was due to a request by the Authority for Transport in Malta, to the operator, to re-engineer the network and carry out substantial modifications” (page 273). Enough said. The Government is owed several millions in arrears and, last year, the Ministry of Finance instructed public entities to recover at least 10 per cent of this amount.

A bit more than half the amount targeted was collected and this inevitably raises serious questions as to the ability of the Government to ever collect much of this money.

Equally worrying is the substantial amount (€45.4m) of direct orders and the fact that one third of these were generated by the Ministry of Finance itself. There was gross malpractice in the payments made by the Good Causes Fund administered by this ministry.

Such abuse coming from the ‘guardian’ of public finance, which is responsible in ensuring that all public entities follow the set rules, is mind-boggling.

Much of the money for government expenditure is paid by us taxpayers and it is the Government’s duty to ensure that it is spent in a cost-effective manner.

Also, more powers need to be given to the NAO. Its annual report should go beyond just listing recommendations and include an action plan by the management of the public entity involved of what is to be done, by who and by when to correct the identified shortcomings.

Lessons need to be learnt.

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