Sadeen university: Investment is no excuse for impunity

From the outset, the government has shown a dogged determination to push this project through at all costs

This week Parliament sat for an extraordinary session to seal the transfer of public land in Marsaskala and Bormla for the construction of the ‘American University of Malta’. 

From the outset, the government has shown a dogged determination to push this project through at all costs; this determination took a turn for the surreal, as Parliament debated the issue through the night until 9am.

It was fitting for the contract to be approved under such unusual conditions. The contract is itself unusual in many ways. It certainly takes unusual liberties with Maltese law; and in doing so, it also demolishes Labour’s last credentials as a government elected on the cry of ‘accountability’.

Much has already been written about the environmental aspect of the controversy. It is clear from the generally negative reaction that the general public is concerned – rightly – with the loss of open space in an already overbuilt environment. This was echoed even in the President’s annual address on Republic Day. 

Underlying this legitimate concern are also serious misgivings about Malta’s legislative capability to protect what little is left of the natural environment beyond Zonqor point. The land transferred to the Sadeen Group was mostly Outside Development Zone. The government has not only rendered that term meaningless, by parcelling up ODZ land for development… but it has also tinkered with existing conservation legislation to allow for more abuses in future.

All this after having campaigned against the 2005 ODZ extension scheme, and winning an election on the promise to safeguard the environment.

Now that the transfer has passed through Parliament, it is worth commenting on the other questionable aspects of an agreement conducted in the utmost secrecy, and about which there has been too much misinformation. 

The first and most serious consideration is that public procurement rules were ignored, with no justification given. The government is bound by legislation (apart from its own electoral promises) to issue a public call for tenders for any government contract worth more than a certain amount. When in Opposition, Labour had routinely criticised the Nationalists for ignoring this law when giving direct orders. 

This latest example puts all its predecessors to shame. The government has transferred a large area of public land to a foreign investor, to be used for commercial purposes, without any call for tenders, or any transparency of any kind. The partner in this agreement was simply hand-picked by the government, in a way that clearly flouts all known governance procedures.

Such a cavalier disregard for the law cannot be ignored in anyone: let alone the government, which is the prime legislator in any country.

As already indicated, environmental local plans were also ignored. Apart from being ODZ, the land in question had originally been earmarked for a natural park. All this would be bad enough if the chosen company was above all reproach. It transpires, however, that the Sadeen Group has no experience in education, and that the AUM is not yet licensed as a university.

This in turn raises another issue: just as the government was willing to tweak environmental regulations to permit this development… would it also be ready to lower educational standards, so that its chosen institution qualifies as a ‘university’?

By defining it as such before it is even accredited, the Muscat administration has shown political fiat to facilitate its accreditation. This is also why more transparency is needed: in a call for tenders scenario, prospective bidders can be scrutinised before selection. Any problems concerning suitability should arise long before the contract is signed.

Prime Minister Muscat has so far defended this project largely on the strength of the investment it promises to bring to Malta: and in particular, to the often overlooked south.

This is however not an argument to condone the lax application of our laws. The problem does not concern the investment. Any legitimate investment that regenerates the south and port areas is to be welcomed; no question about that. 

It is the cost of the investment that is questionable. No amount of money makes the erosion of Malta’s governance institutions worthwhile.

If we start down the slippery road where good governance is ignored and public procurement rules are side-stepped, then the stage will be set for all sorts of other controversial projects to be inflicted on the public without any respect for environmental rules.

Muscat’s argument that the same applies to SmartCity is likewise beside the point. SmartCity was nothing but a direct order whose application to MEPA was fast-tracked; but Tecom had a reputation in the field, and the area scheduled for development was a derelict industrial estate.

In this case, however, the recipe was to select a foreign investor and willy-nilly give him prime ODZ land. If that’s a blueprint for the future, we will be flinging the door wide open to corruption. 

Ultimately, the government is weakening good governance. Through public-private partnerships and government agencies, and expressions of interest instead of clear-cut public calls for tenders, it is bypassing the rigorous (if slow grind) of the civil service that ensures accountability and respect for rules.

There rules are there to safeguard the public and common good. The government cannot expect to flout them with impunity, and not pay a price.

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