Editorial | Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Bluff, brazen denial and the hangover

Government tenders caught up in litigation and allegations of foulplay are no news. The more spectacular cases involving large sums of money produce contestation and attract news coverage. They also account for long delays in the completion of major infrastructural works.
Quite separately from the litigation involving the parties themselves, the peripheral political skirmishes propagate the damage for years. In whose interests was the alleged deviation from due process committed? With whose blessing and why? Opaque processes produce a toxic bloom of suspicion and conspiracy theories.
Everybody’s credibility suffers. Even when the findings of the investigation initiated under political pressure exonerate all the accused, the whiff of cover-up lingers. Citizens suspect the government and foreigners come to regard us as some sort of banana republic.
When a tender was issued for the integrated solid waste management of all our waste, several serious contenders, some of whom had invested tens of thousands of Maltese Liri in exploring our waste reality, refused to make a bid. The Solid Waste Management Strategy for the Maltese Islands was made one of the tender conditions months before the document was published. If the eventual bidders had no assurance of what it would contain, they deserve the highest praise for entrepreneurial courage bordering on foolhardiness.
Months and years rolled by without any adjudication being made and some bidders only hearing from government when it was time to renew their bid bond. Then again when they did hear from government it was to learn that the tender was no longer for the implementation of the strategy as a whole by the tender winner. The original request had been altered midstream and parts of it were awarded to some bidders while other parts hung fire. For the Maltese bidders and their foreign partners this involved a renegotiation of their arrangements. If a team or partnership had been formed on the basis that x-y-z were to be carried out, how does the team carry on once x has been assigned to a third party? If they had been agreed that A would execute x and B y-z on the basis of their expertise and capabilities what happens to their original common bid? The disorientation of the bidders must have been complete and the chagrin of would-be bidders for parts of the work who had felt excluded by the original all-or-nothing proposal also.
The melodramatic saga over the hospital equipment tender with all its false denouements, inquiries, libels and prosecutions might have given the protagonists more than a headache. Those of us who were only weary onlookers find it simply shocking.
Ever since we joined more and more foreign bidders are involved in the supply of goods and services to our government. Every time an outrageous scandal breaks over the award of some tender offer our banana republic reputation spreads further and further. In these days of instant global communication, no news, let alone bad news, can be suppressed.
In response to the story broken in our sister newspaper Illum on Sunday the Prime Minister is reported to have flatly denied the claims and allegations of the complainant Israeli company Hutny-Bateman that its competitors have been favoured despite having made the more expensive and polluting bids for the 100Mw extension of the Delimara power station.
With the experience of several recent election campaigns at our backs we cannot help but suspect that the Prime Minister has been constrained into yet another flat denial knowing that the fat will be in the fire soon enough but not before the 6 June elections. Anybody who has had sight of the detailed document submitted to the Prime Minister by the Israeli Company cannot but doubt the Prime Minister’s flat denails. Most of the voting public may never read a word of it and certainly not before voting time. The Prime Minister has opted for the usual damage limitation knee jerk and will face the music afterwards. The question is how much music can anyone face, how many times, and survive? Is political survival all that should be sought? Who cares who survives if in the process the whole country earns a reputation for opaque dealing, Byzantine intrigue and bizarre awards?
When will we ever shake it off?


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20 May 2009

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