Transparency is a commitment, not a choice

Briefly put, the electorate doesn’t need the Labour government to remind it of the failures of the former administration. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

As time wears on, the present government’s habit of always responding to criticism by pointing towards its predecessors’ mistakes is becoming both repetitive and self-defeating. 

For some time now, the Opposition has been insisting on the full publication of all agreements and contracts pertinent to the development of a new power station in Marsaxlokk. Last October, opposition spokesman Mario de Marco called on the government to publish all its agreements with Chinese state-owned company Shanghai Electric Power, which had acquired a 30% shareholding in Malta’s only energy provider, Enemalta. 

The same agreements also oversaw a Chinese majority shareholding (70%) in the BWSC plant; a power purchase deal between Enemalta and the BWSC plant; and the creation of a new joint company in the renewable energy field.

The government’s response at the time was to complain that it had “inherited a sector that was neglected, a corporation that was burdened with debt, [and] electricity generation that depended on the most polluting oil and the highest water and energy tariffs.”

All this may even be true, but it doesn’t answer the opposition’s perfectly legitimate questions concerning an agreement which has inescapable implications for Malta’s sovereignty in its most strategically sensitive sector.

More recently, Transport Minister Joe Mizzi has likewise been under pressure to publish the contract with Spanish transport company Autobuses Urbanos de Leon. Reminded of an earlier promise to release this document after Christmas, Mizzi replied that he “remembered well what he had said, as much as he remembered that it took the previous government 11 months to publish the contract with Arriva”.

This sort of bickering, however, is a bus which takes us nowhere. Indeed, all such arguments achieve is to remind us precisely of the promises made by the Labour Party prior to the last election – which it had contested in part on the platform of transparency – but which have not, to date, been kept.

Briefly put, the electorate doesn’t need the Labour government to remind it of the failures of the former administration. The fact that Labour won the 2013 election so handsomely, and on the promise of a different approach, is sufficient confirmation that the electorate was, and still is, fully cognisant of those failures. 

Joseph Muscat’s government is therefore obliged to be more transparent than the Gonzi administration… and it cannot fulfil that obligation merely by telling the people what they already know, while withholding vital information with the other hand.

More to the point, by reminding us of the secrecy that had once shrouded the BWSC contract, the government today is indirectly also inviting comparison with its own less-than-open dealings in the same sector. 

Under pressure, the government eventually tabled a 15-page dossier detailing certain aspects of the deal with Shanghai Electric. But this is far from a satisfactory response to the demand for full transparency. This document merely acknowledges the shareholding of the new companies created in the energy sector; but it does not include the crucial power purchase agreement regulating the sale of energy from the privatised BWSC plant to Enemalta.

Moreover, the same document also obliges the Chinese state owned company to convert the BWSC plant to gas, but includes no timeframes or penalties if these are not met. This is significant, as in the days when it was a Nationalist administration that refused to publish energy contracts, the Labour opposition had loudly criticised the lack of any disciplinary provisos in the event of missed deadlines. That same criticism is just as applicable to its own dealings with foreign contractors regarding energy projects. The similarity between these two scenarios is too disconcerting to ignore.

Moreover, the published agreement refers to ‘ancillary agreements’ which are not annexed to the document. There does not seem to be any clause regulating the resolution of conflicts between the two companies. There is even reference to other “commercial agreements” that may take precedence over the published contract. Tabling that document has, in fact, only raised more questions than it answered.

In a sense, then, Labour’s insistence on drawing comparisons with the BWSC contract also serves to highlight the uncanny resemblance to its own modus operandi. And the few differences that do exist between these two approaches do not augur particularly well for Labour’s own interpretation of ‘transparency’.

Part of the (official) reason for Gonzi’s reluctance to publish the BWSC contract concerned confidentiality clauses; which in practice meant that Malta’s prime minister had to endure the indignity of asking a foreign company for ‘permission’. Labour was bound by no such constraint – on the contrary, the agreement envisioned full disclosure in parliament. 

And once limited permission was duly given by BWSC, the previous government tabled a 2,000 page contract made up of documents in 11 volumes. There were omissions, certainly: but even here, the public was informed about which parts of the contract were being withheld to protect “confidential and proprietary information” belonging to BWSC’s suppliers.

Labour’s own approach to transparency, on the other hand, does not even come close to this level of detail. Clearly, then, there is still some distance to go, before the Labour government can begin to deliver on its most crucial promise to the electorate.

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