J.G. Vassallo | Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Quangos in the Woodpile

J.G. Vassallo

The latest official figures show that government expenditure is still peaking up and is running well in excess of revenue. Although total annual revenue shot up from about €1,600 million in the year 2000 to about €2,697 million last year, total government debt escalated from €2,217 million to €3,422million during the same period. And it is still rising merrily.
This is a run-away situation which tells it all. Malta’s ailment stems from a combination of deliberate profligacy and incompetence. Taxpaying citizens are ruefully aware that democracy has failed them. “Money no Problem” was not just a soothing lullaby. It turned out to be an unaesthetic before the pain that was bound to follow!
How has this come about? The answer can be given in four words: failure to cut expenditure—indeed failure to stop expenditure rising. Why has this failure occurred? Because Parliament lacked the will to impose itself when our public finances began to drift.
Special interests claimed that their spending was uncuttable. Lobbies, pressure-groups, know-all academics, trade unions and professional associations all demanded a bigger slice of the cake. And, all the while, the bureaucracy slumbered.

Criminally wasteful element
To begin with, revenue departments failed to collect large sums from tax-evaders – itself a sure symptom of an overtaxed society. The criminally wasteful element in the public service made hay while the sun was shining and lorded it over, by making personal use of government transport, traveling first class of government business, and generally making itself very comfortable at public expense. And the Government embarked on expensive flights of fancy which cost the earth. The Mater Dei Hospital project, which has proved to be a veritable white elephant while it was under construction, and the capricious purchase of Dar Malta in Brussels are prime examples that prove my point.
Much of the money lost or stolen could be identified, if not quantified, by reference to the annual reports of the Auditor General. A substantial chunk is attributable to quangos – the Foundations, Authorities, Boards and such like bureaucratic monsters set up at the pleasure of the government of the day.
A quango – or Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organization – is, by its nature, inclined to be undemocratic because it lives in a no-man’s land, beyond the formal premises of government departments. In theory it falls under Parliamentary scrutiny, but, in practice, it often carries on absorbing substantial public funds before people or Parliament realise what is happening.

How many Quangos?
It is characteristic of the mist which shrouds quangoland that one does not have, at any one time, an accurate official figure for the existing total number of quangos or their composition.
It is an axiom of our parliamentary system of government that the people who decide how money is to be raised are MPs, elected by voters. People in charge of spending it are either ministers or civil servants. Ministers must be Members of Parliament and answerable directly to it. Civil servants are subject to strict rules, which are minutely supervised by Parliament, at least in theory — and which is all as it should be.
But quangos are run, and often staffed, by a third and altogether different category of persons. The quango-monger is not elected by anyone. He is not required by law to have any qualifications. He can be any Tom, Dick or Harry. All he requires is government patronage.
Quangoland has been described as an enormous, totally undemocratic system of outdoor relief for the good and the well-befriended. There is no doubt that there are members of quangos who deserve to be there. It is equally beyond question that many others are the unworthy beneficiaries of a lax and unsupervised system which provides jobs, sometimes powerful and well-paid jobs, for the boys and girls who, for one reason or another, enjoy the favour of Ministers or the king-makers resident at Pieta.

The Quango Trough
Certain categories of people get their snouts stuck in the quango trough, depending on which government is in power. Quango jobs are sometimes handed to academics – the sort of academics who do not notably expand the frontiers of knowledge, but who are assiduous explorers of the corridors of the Auberges.
Nobody is saying that all the people who run quangos are invariably corrupt or inevitably inefficient. But, obviously, the less accountable a body spending public money is – or the more remote its accountability – the less likely it is that mistakes and frauds will be detected before the cash goes down the drain. This is what experience has shown, time and time again.
When all the mismanagement, waste and accumulated frauds in the public sector are added together, the bottom line emerges in the structural deficit and the accumulation of national debt that has practically paralyzed the government, exhausted the tax-paying public and stultified economic growth. It has finally got the Government in trouble with Brussels.

Raw Material of Experience
Overall statistics corroborate public perceptions about the state of our public finances. And ‘anecdotal evidence’ emerges to give greater credence to these perceptions.
There is, oftentimes, a lot to be said for anecdotal evidence. It is the basis on which many go through life, forming judgments. It always has been and always will be. Because anecdotal evidence is the raw material of experience.
All of us vote on the basis of anecdotal evidence. And, it is because we hear of cases and ponder them, that we decide whether our political system - our democracy - is working, and whether there is a case for an overhaul under new management.



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12 August 2009


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