The things one should never say

The next parliament must discuss guidelines to make tender award systems open to more parliamentary scrutiny.

Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon for MaltaToday on Sunday by Mark Scicluna

The content of the Toni Zarb tapes point to issues of political correctness, good governance and allegations of potential peddling of influence relating to government tenders.

There can be little doubt that the tapes reveal a sort of selling of direct access to government, in offering to use his good offices to influence a potential Labour government in the issuing of tenders. Whether this is true is another matter.

The Union is selling itself as a privileged partner of the Labour Party. Zarb's own words could point to blatant future influence-peddling, which certainly does not augur well or allay fears people have had for years; that in the issuing of tenders the very process is not sufficiently transparent.

Equally condemning is Toni Zarb's commitment to help tenderers via the union newspapers with favourable copy and a commitment not to publish material detrimental to the businessman's companies in the union's newspapers. 

It is true that the background to the whole story probably refers to a situation where the union could have been reasonably justified in confronting a business entity. But Zarb's comments were a mistake.

The whole matter relating to tender awards needs to be addressed with radical reforms and fine-tuning which will allow people to have more faith in the system and remain reassured that all is above board.

There are too many suspicions around the issuing of tenders, its level of transparency, the specific wording of the tender, and the criterion surrounding the final choice made in the awarding of tenders. There have been numerous tender awards that have been highly controversial. While generally speaking the issuing of tenders interests just a select number of companies who periodically apply for tenders, the accusations of improper behaviour do carry consequences on our society in general.

The reactions to the publication of these tapes are also noteworthy of comment. The Nationalist Party was quick to announce that Toni Zarb should resign from his top post at the union for clearly having announced the union's intention to favour businesses close to the union when applying for tenders.

This call for resignation is rich, when one recalls how silent the same party has been when numerous occasions of incorrect political behaviour by its exponents had surfaced. Equally noteworthy is the way the leader of the Opposition disassociated himself and simply dismissed this influence-peddling without condemning it with a short one liner: that nobody has the right to speak in the name of the new government.  It is also worth noting the attempt by the union to dismiss this unsavoury affair as simply a discussion to fight precarious employment.

If, however, lessons are to be drawn from this recording, all three protagonists - the Nationalist Party, the Labour Party and the union leader - rather than trying to make political capital out of this issue, should commit themselves to a serious debate within the framework of their political manifestos.

The revelations of this tape should, even at this eleventh hour, drive both parties to draw up a blueprint in the awarding of tenders, for although the award system is regulated by a contracts committee with strict procedures, there is much room for increased transparency in order for the awards system to win public trust.  

To date, once a contract is announced, a call for an expression of interests is made. Little information is published in the government gazette and all persons (including  companies registered in the European Union), have a right to apply for the tender. It is also worth noting that once a tender is announced, conspiracy theories and loose talk starts immediately with rumours that a particular tender is earmarked or tailor made for a particular company with allegations of favouritism that the award is simply a smoke screen to favour a person or that the wording specifically favours one particular tenderer. This cynical attitude is not totally based on conspiratorial considerations.

There is no more effective way to address it than by increasing the levels of transparency, in keeping with the maxim that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

We would strongly suggest that the next parliament discusses and issues guidelines to make the award system open to more parliamentary scrutiny via a further beefed up public accounts committee and with media scrutiny by allowing the press to an open question-and-answer session relating to the tender long before the final award is made. This may put the citizen's mind at rest that all was done above board. It will certainly put an end to the constant accusations by the interested parties who lose a tender that the contracts committee favoured the person the contract was awarded to.

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