A question of meritocracy

The government’s silence about the recent revelations concerning John Bundy is indicative of the general state of public administration in Malta

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

The government’s silence about the recent revelations concerning John Bundy – the politically-appointed CEO of PBS – is indicative of the general state of public administration in Malta.

Last week, the PBS board of directors made public a letter in which they said they no longer had confidence in Bundy. In minutes from a directors’ meeting seen by MaltaToday, Bundy was said to have ignored contract rules when PBS signed 14 different contracts for a total of €500,131 to lease cars for the unprecedented duration of eight years.

The directors said that the leasing of cars for a period of eight years was “not considered as the norm”. More to the point: government procurement regulations for such an amount clearly obliged PBS to issue a public tender.

Effectively, this means that PBS circumvented both its own procedures, as well Maltese legislation concerning public procurement. Under scrutiny, it transpires that John Bundy also by-passed the national station’s own corporate manager, who is directly responsible for such contracts. It seems to have been a unilateral, self-negotiated ‘agreement’, of which even the board of directors was left in the dark. It was not until the board summoned PBS financial controller Brian Galea that it learned of the leasing contract’s details.

Questions have also been raised regarding the motives for the extraordinary contract. One of the leased cars is for the exclusive use of Natalino Fenech, the former PBS head of news, who in 2013 stepped down from his position after Labour’s election. Fenech is now a University lecturer who has no extant ties to the national station at all. Yet according to the directors’ minutes, Fenech is “still on PBS’ payroll with all perks and allowances”.

Clearly, the entire situation smacks heavily of maladministration. Aside from legal, technical and procedural questions, we are also confronted with the very epitome of the traditional stereotype of the upper echelons of the ‘public service’. Once again we face a situation whereby no one assumes responsibility, and where public officials believe they do not have to answer to anyone.

And for the umpteenth time, we are treated to a spectacle whereby ‘political appointments’ are dished out for all the wrong reasons: becoming little more than cushy positions that are sought after for their benefits and perks... which are in turn liberally distributed (at the taxpayers’ expense) to what former Prime Minister Alfred Sant would have described as ‘friends of friends’.  

This is, of course, terribly unfair on the many public service chiefs who do indeed perform their duties with responsibility and conscience. It is for this reason alone that such revelations must be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

And yet, the government’s reaction to date has been: nothing at all. Pressed by this newspaper, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat dodged the issue altogether. Asked directly if Bundy should be fired, he cryptically remarked that ‘he did not know of the PBS board decision, and that he had not been asked for input or he would have given it.’ He also claimed that the decision to fire Bundy rests with PBS.

Muscat is either misinformed, or being economical with the truth. Bundy was installed in his position without any formal call for applications for CEO, after the departure of Anton Attard, on a four-year contract. Ultimately, it is Minister Owen Bonnici who would have to assume responsibility for Bundy’s dismissal.

This in turn might explain why Bundy himself has been so cavalier about the whole affair. On Monday morning, he was a guest on TVM in a “programme” hosted by Ben Camille, where he sat there joking and wasting time, with no care in the world. Clearly, the CEO believes he can carry on business as usual even though his board of directors has no confidence in him. 

Technically, he may even have a point: the board of directors is powerless to take any action in this regard. But that only underscores the significance of this impasse: the government is clearly defending its own chosen appointee – possibly just to save face – at the expense of all its pre-electoral promises concerning ‘meritocracy’.

The timing is also significant. The government last week said it would be setting up a parliamentary committee to debate proposed appointments to the diplomatic service and public entities, including PBS. With three members to the opposition’s two, the government will still have the upper hand on any appointments it could make.

This newspaper has already pointed out the flaws in this otherwise well-meaning initiative. Under such circumstances, the committee could easily be exploited as a tool with which to rubber-stamp government decisions.

The Bundy incident therefore serves as a timely reminder of why such public vetting of appointments is so important. The whole point of the Public Appointments Act is to ensure a transparent, accountable procedure, and that public and political appointees are made answerable when such incidents occur.  If the government is really serious in wanting to introduce candidate vetting, it should be equally serious in taking immediate action when appointees are found lacking in the execution of their duties.

If John Bundy does not resign, he should be fired immediately. Otherwise, all this talk of ‘transparency’ and ‘meritocracy’ becomes meaningless.