Editorial | Sunday, 24 May 2009
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What governance?

This week, one part of the reform of public transport came and went. Stealthily in the main, since a voluminous amount of legislation was passed by legal notice, without the subject-matter being broached in parliament. Debate is evidently not the style of the present government executive when it comes to grand plans.
Now reform of the public transport system is surely due, especially after witnessing the aggressive response of the federated associations of public transport last summer to the liberalisation of the motor hearse sector. But nobody wants to see the basic democratic safeguards of a country compromised, just for the mere expediency of government ministers.
Nothing personifies bad governance as a government that flouts its own laws, especially those of public procurement, as witnessed last week in the report produced by the National Audit Officer on the direct orders and security and car park tenders at Mater Dei Hospital.
Public tendering rules are part of the mechanism of a democratic state and its economy. Taxpayers hand over their money to the public coffers to be managed by the people we elect democratically, and we rightfully demand that our money is spent according to the regulations already in place.
The NAO investigation into the Mater Dei contracts exposed this government’s blatant disregard for such rules, due to lack of foresight in the face of the migration from St Luke’s Hospital to Mater Dei. The internal security of the hospital was handed to Group 4 Securitas, previously employed on site by Skanska, because a tender was not issued prior to the handover of the hospital to government; and another publicly awarded contract, this time for external security and the management of the car park, was amended to the serendipitous benefit of Parksec Ltd (a G4S company) because of a political decision of which the Prime Minister has taken ownership.
What happened was a farcical management of the monies entrusted to government by the Foundation for Medical Services, then under the stewardship of Lawrence Gonzi as finance minister. The FMS gave G4S the order in January 2008, and then sought to sanction this contract only after the general election had passed in March, originally pushing for a three-year contract. It turned out that when it did get permission to ‘award’ a six-month contract, it had miscalculated the original estimate by an incredible €350,000.
Even after MaltaToday exposed the story of procurement breaches in August 2008, and Labour MP Charles Mangion took the matter to the Auditor General, G4S was kept on as security contractor until March 2009 – costing €1.7 million. In the meantime, 51 government security officers at St Luke’s were left where they were, manning the empty halls for a wage bill of €800,000.
A more bizarre contract was the publicly awarded tender for external security and car park. Originally Parksec had to pay government a €326,000 concession every year for the right to retain all the car park fees. But when Gonzi decided to (justifiably) lower the parking fees due to public outrage, a strange compromise occurred: the contract was split in two, with government paying Parksec €577,219 to run external security with a workforce of 23; and the concession fee for the car park was waived.
Parksec was, additionally, paid €74,214 to manage a hospital staff car park, of which the fees collected would be given to FMS (€36,000, an amount that FMS has not even accepted yet); and another €44,000 for 50 reserved spaces for renal and disabled patients.
Last year, Parksec ended up with just over €695,000 to run the car park and external security, and an estimated €750,000 in parking fees it was allowed to retain without paying a concession fee, apart from funds it stands to make by using the parking space areas for advertising, another revenue opportunity FMS handed over to the company.
All in all, the total cost of awarding a direct order to G4S, employing government workers to ‘secure’ an empty hospital, amending the car park contract, waiving the concession fee and awarding another administrative contract to Parksec, totalled €4.6 million.
Much like the government that legislates by legal notice, Gonzi and the Nationalist government believe their ‘doer’s ethos’ is some sacrosanct dogma where “efficiency” can put asunder any law that burdens them with the rigours of transparency and accountability. This time it cost the taxpayer €4.6 million in badly managed cash. Instead it benefited a small group of entrepreneurs who outwitted the FMS mandarins in their negotiations.
Unmoved and emboldened by the electoral campaign, Gonzi proudly proclaimed he would do the same if pushed by tightening deadlines to issue direct orders just to ‘achieve results’. The Auditor-General’s recommendations went ignored by the general press, indifferent to the ramifications these had for governance in general, and for Gonzi’s public record. As he once implored, Gonzi will be judged by his deeds. Or indeed, the lack of them.

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