Government doesn’t want to reveal €400,000 spend on Calleja concert

Muscat administration keen to keep one of its most popular decisions a secret

One of the 'tourism related events' found under the Ministry of Tourism's €2 million budget
One of the 'tourism related events' found under the Ministry of Tourism's €2 million budget

Joseph Calleja’s powerful celebration of song is now not just Malta’s major date on the cultural calendar – thanks to the government’s decision to turn the tenor’s annual event into a free, public concert, Calleja & Friends now rivals the big names on the annual Isle of MTV stage and is starting to attract great media attention from across Europe.

So why is the government so secretive about the €402,500 (VAT included) of taxpayer money which gives the public open access to the joys of Calleja’s music?

Earlier this week, the Office of the Prime Minister blocked MaltaToday’s request to the tourism ministry to explain what items fall under the €2 million allocated for ‘tourism related events’ in its budget vote.

Although this newspaper made no reference to the Calleja concert, the tourism ministry’s spokesperson forwarded the request to give a breakdown of this particular line item to the OPM, which is the central nervous system for most media requests.

The cordial telephone conversation with the OPM staffer that followed was straight out of the spin doctors’ playbook: why was the information required; why should it even be made public; and why should the government explain an arrangement that involves foreign artistes like Claudio Baglioni…

Forget the taxpayers’ right to know. Forget the fact that ministers have in the past answered similar questions in parliament giving a breakdown of budgetary line items. In the subsequent, less cordial exchange of SMSs, it was made clear to MaltaToday that the ministry of tourism would be directed to refuse the request.

The answer echoed a previous one given out to the media in 2013: “I can confirm that there exist contractual obligations with regard to the disclosure of financials… Our partners in these events deal with a number of other territories and any disclosure of financial agreements could compromise negotiations they might be having with other parties, exposing the government to legal complications and allegations of breach of contract” – the tourism ministry replied.

The €400,000 to €500,000 sum dished out by the Muscat administration for NnG Promotions – Calleja’s management – to open up the tenor’s annual concert to the public’s free admission, is an open secret.

It’s been a popular decision for the 25,000 persons who attended the concert, but the government remains tight-lipped about the cash paid.

And this despite the fact that Malta Tourism Authority chairman Gavin Gulia declared that most of the MTA’s €500,000 losses in 2013 were costs which had “not been budgeted for” and the result of commitments made by the agreement with NnG Promotions and the finance ministry. According to Gulia, the funds the ministry had pledged to compensate were not forthcoming and, subsequently, the authority ended the year with a higher deficit.

Notwithstanding Gulia’s gripes, taxpayers should be allowed to understand the cost of good decision-making. By admission of the OPM and the tourism ministry, the government wants to give the public free access to Calleja’s seductive music, but not free access to know how it spends their cash.