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Directly, but not an order

When a country is run like a fiefdom, literally anything goes, even a direct order of €274 million at St Vincent de Paul Residence, though the government insists it is a public-private partnership. So, all is fine, everything is above board, even the €274 million direct order, which the Finance Minister insists he knew nothing about, let alone approved.

It started off with a public-private partnership tender in 2015 for the procurement of catering facilities for 10 years at the elderly people’s home and the construction of a new kitchen. The tender document, valued at €58 million, had included an unusual clause, a call for “additional investment” by the bidders.

The best offer was made by a consortium made up of James Caterers and a subsidiary of the Seabank Group, best known for the lucrative deal it landed to develop the former ITS site in St George’s Bay.

Theirs was not the cheapest offer but they won the tender by offering to build a 500-bed extension to St Vincent de Paul, costed at €30 million. There is no development permit for that, of course, but the money has been committed and, no, it was not a direct order, we are assured. It may have been an ancillary expense of €274 million, or a partnership, between the government in charge of public coffers and the private sector. And it is all legal, the government insists.

The parliamentary secretary res-ponsible for the elderly is happy with the deal and speaks of €17 million in savings and advantageous rates. Furthermore, he thinks he is catering for the country’s aging population who have paid for the deal through their taxes.

How has the country come to this?

In its many years in Opposition, the Labour Party had extended a hand of friendship to the business community, something that was not easy in the past. Under Joseph Muscat, Labour went further with his new version of socialism and has embraced the private sector and, evidently, also operates like it was part of it, with the full force of the State behind it.

Only with such a mindset, that of running a fiefdom, could the Prime Minister ever offer the vast tracts of land in Żonqor Point like he was dealing with his private property. And only such a thwarted view of what good governance is can lead the country to end up with the biggest direct order in its history at St Vincent de Paul.

It has been a policy that, in a way, worked immensely, with the private sector running in full gear under a Labour government, to the benefit of economic statistics but not so much of the environment or the lower-scale wage earners.

The Opposition leader has taken an interest in this private-public partnership and has met the successful bidders, at their invitation. Clearly, big business is nowadays comfy with either political party, making much better safeguards more imperative.

It is unacceptable that the Finance Minister, responsible for the country’s purse, claims ignorance about some-thing he should have known, if not approved as well. Public-private partnerships have clearly opened the door to uncomfortable arrangements. They require regulation and, above all, openness. Problem is, the country’s bursar is evidently not on top of things.

Possible court cases and inquiries are not enough.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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