Transparency is an obligation, not a choice

Is the government bound to pay hefty penalties? Should it renege on its contractual obligations? If so, isn’t the government also obliged to inform the general public of the possible risks involved in pursuing either option? 

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

In the unfolding debate about the Vitals hospitals contract – now with Steward Global healthcare – we seem to have lost sight of one of the fundamental principles at stake in this – and indeed any – issue.

In our Parliamentary system, Government is there to represent the interests of the tax-payer: not its own partisan interests, and still less the interests of the entities with which it does business. For this reason, it owes an account of itself to the people, first and foremost.

Throughout the Vitals debate, this fundamental principle has been ignored. Government has chosen to reveal only select excerpts of the contract, with parts censored or blacked out, citing commercial sensitivity as justification.

Under normal circumstances the pretext may even be considered acceptable; but under the present circumstances, it is imperative that the contract is published in full.

Already there are indications that terms and conditions were not met by the original contractor, which sold its concession to third parties (only to unsuccessfully try to backtrack on the sale). The Medical Association of Malta insists that the deal be scrapped, and has already issued strike directives to its members to that effect: a measure it now threatens to repeat, if its demands are not met.

Government, on its part, is standing its ground: raising questions about the possible consequences of withdrawing from this deal, in a contract we have not so far seen.

At this point, we can no longer fall back on traditional excuses. As long as the relevant details – the penalty clauses in case of governmental default, for instance – remain hidden from view, the taxpayer cannot be confident that his/her money is being judiciously spent in a transaction which has already raised so many questions and suspicions. In fact, without seeing the contract it is impossible to even judge whether MAM is being reasonable or excessive in its actions.

Is the government bound to pay hefty penalties? Should it renege on its contractual obligations? If so, isn’t the government also obliged to inform the general public of the possible risks involved in pursuing either option? What, in a nutshell, is binding Chris Fearne’s and government’s hands?

Matters are compounded by the fact that government seems to also wilfully misconstrue its obligations at law. Fearne has hinted that the government could show the contract to select members of MAM, to reassure them of conditions. But that is nowhere near acceptable, since even those members would then be bound by the same non-disclosure agreement as the rest, and would not be able to pass on the information to the public.

Besides, Fearne seems to forget that he is negotiating on behalf of the Maltese taxpayer, not the Medical Association of Malta. He needs to reassure the people as a whole, not just one trade union.

Moreover, there is a strong case to be made that it is in his own, and his government’s, interest to do so. Unless the contract is published in full, we will not be able to judge Fearne’s position and behaviour accurately, either. If the consequences do indeed include hefty fines, then for all intents and purposes Fearne may actually be doing the right thing, in defending the contract at all costs even at the risks of strikes. Perhaps it is because he cannot take any other position.

At this stage, all the public is seeing is a defiant Fearne willing to risk more industrial action and unrest, so as not to be seen giving an inch of ground to the political opposition. There may well be partisan reasons for such posturing: undeniably such tactics are appreciated by the party grassroots on both sides.

But it must also be remembered that while Fearne may currently be fathering the orphan that is the ‘Vitals deal’, it was not his baby to start with. By the same token, he might actually be taking the flak for Konrad Mizzi, who was the minister who negotiated the contract in the first place... and who has to date remained silent on the matter.

Given the existing suspicions that Mizzi may have a ‘hold’ on his government – suspicions that were raised by the Panama Papers, and extended by the (unconfirmed) Egrant allegations – this otherwise unrelated dimension may help to further explain government’s evident reluctance to publish this contract once and for all. But if so, that would be a case of the party in government placing its own interest ahead of the taxpayer. That would be unacceptable by any standard.

Ultimately, however, government should publish the contract in the interest of transparency and accountability. These are not empty by-words or catchphrases; they are both explicit promises made by the Labour Party before assuming the reins of government in 2013.

They are also legal and political principles binding any government in its public transactions. This would be true of any contract for any amount of taxpayer’s money; all the more should it be true of a contract which sells so much of our national healthcare infrastructure, for (apparently) so little gain.

Apparently, let it be stressed... for that is something else we won’t know until the contract is published.