Finance Minister Clyde Caruana has issued a stark warning: it’s time to start tightening our belts. The party’s over, everyone, and we’ve all got to start picking up the pieces. Never mind that you weren’t invited, you’re still going to get stuck trying to scrape the trampled cake out of the carpets.
That belt-tightening phrase was an unfortunate choice of words. It still manages to induce a deep shudder, more than 30 years since we last heard it thundered at us by notorious former prime minister Dom Mintoff. But the sentiment couldn’t be more apt. Unless Caruana can pull some truly magical rabbits out of his hat fast, we might not even have a belt left to tighten.
As we’ve never actually seen Caruana wearing anything on his head at all, let alone anything capacious enough to contain the multitude of bunnies he’d need, we’ve decided to give him a helping hand by compiling a list of instant fixes for him: deal with these issues and maybe we’ll at least get to keep our underwear.
Public service employment
Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar is quoted in The Times on Wednesday saying “if” an internal review finds any waste, public service employment could be affected. Hard to imagine where he got that “if” from – in September, The Shift reported that the number of public sector employees had swelled by 25%, or 10,000, under the Labour administration, to reach 50,000 – a number that’s actually only the tip of the iceberg as it excludes those employed by foundations funded by the government and those hired by contractors on lucrative government contracts.
State boards, foundations, organisations have become stuffed to the gills with the relatives and friends of Labour ministers, many of whom serve on multiple boards receiving separate cheques for each and extending their influence in irregular recruitment and reckless spending on pet projects. A good place to start would be the CEO packages that Prime Minister Robert Abela pledged, before the elections, to ‘revise’ – a promise about which he seems to be suffering selective amnesia.
Quick memory jolt: Health Minister Chris Fearne’s chief canvasser, Carmen Ciantar, is being paid a whopping €163,000 a year; Kurt Farrugia, former spokesman of disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat, is getting as much as €180,000 as CEO at Malta Enterprise, and Central Bank Governor Edward Scicluna on €120,000 a year, among others.
Caruana’s own 2022 budget envisaged ministry expenses this year to be €2.4 billion higher than they were last year – representing a 53% increase to €6.95 billion from the €4.55 billion planned for last year. No doubt that the fact that the number of ministry staff rose by almost 15% last year alone has something to do with that, as do the endless stream of launch parties for piddly little projects, unfinished works and other mindless excuses to employ friends and family to cater and entertain the bemused masses.
Infrastructure building is crucial to a modern economy, and the improvement of roads and services. State institutions not only enhance the population’s quality of life but also create lucrative employment for workers and boost the government’s tax intake. But that’s only if the projects are planned, financed and managed effectively. The Electrogas, Central Link and St Vincent de Paul projects are just a few examples of the way in which the Labour administration of the past nine years has managed to turn ostensible progress into outright theft of the nation’s money and assets.
Smaller, but equally brazen, projects in which contractors and development companies are awarded contracts to build state infrastructure, such as town square refurbishments, the sports centre in Gozo, hit the headlines on a regular basis. All have one thing in common: the budgets are huge, they are always increased midway, sometimes several times, and they’re always delivered late, if at all.
Think the Central Link underpass project, added on as an expensive little afterthought; the Gozo Museum project that’s beginning to seem like a magic cookie-jar for the contractors involved, and of course, the Gozo Sports Complex, which saw the costs almost double from the projected €9 million to €16 million, and it’s not over yet.
Procuring goods and services for the government should be done via tender, making it possible for all interested companies to bid for any contract being offered. Labour, however, has tossed those rules aside over the past nine years, in favour of its preferred method of spending the nation’s money: Transport Malta’s 20 direct orders worth €424,000 to PL events organiser in a single day; the Water Services Corporation’s 150 direct orders worth €3.5 million in just six months; and the health ministry’s eye-popping record of 256 direct orders worth €36 million in the last six months of 2021, are among the stories The Shift has reported.
How could we forget the shocking revelation that instead of using one of the myriad available state-owned buildings to house the Malta Business Registry, the government elected to go for the private rental of a nondescript bathroom centre in Zejtun – for which we are paying €2 million per year for 15 years on top of having paid to finish the building at the cost of an additional €5 million.
Then there’s the Gozo Channel building, leased in 2019 from an old chum of the company’s chairman and costing the company – which depends on state subsidies to stay afloat – around €100,000 a year. That building too will need renovation at the cost of some €500,000 before it’s usable. Then there’s the Gozo ministry’s decision to splash out as much as €90,000 to rent temporary offices from a convent, to say nothing of the long-pending project to turn another Church-owned building into an old people’s home, which has cost the public millions of wasted euros already.
Ramps and other stories
The scandalous waste of €50,000 just a few weeks ago on building a temporary ramp to enable Pope Francis to travel to Gozo with his vehicle via catamaran instead of ferry illustrates just one example of the type of spendthrift attitude to public money government officials have adopted. This type of squandering of resources isn’t anywhere near as unusual as the headlines would suggest: badly executed work that has to be removed and redone on roads, drainage systems, tree-planting and a host of other areas has become so commonplace as to elicit little more than a resigned shrug from the put-upon populace.
The last few years have seen the almost en masse employment of the Gozitan population by the government via the so-called ‘community workers scheme’ run by the GWU – after it (un)surprisingly won the tender to run the scheme despite being the more expensive bidder. Beyond the scheme, Labour candidates competing for the Gozo ministry seat have made a feast of public money through jobs for votes.
Bonus tip – Robert Abela’s missing property taxes
Caruana need only persuade his brother-in-charms Prime Minister Robert Abela to own up and pay up and he’d be able to add a tidy little stash to the state coffers – and present a good example to the rest of the population who are very seriously wondering why on earth they bother to pay their own taxes, given the propensity of so many of their leaders to forego giving the taxman his due.
Double bonus tip
Start charging market-rate rent to disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat instead of allowing him to continue squatting in prime state real estate for use as his own personal office, while his wife swans around flaunting the wealth they’re scrounging off taxpayers on Instagram. And while we’re at it, Caruana might be persuaded to consider whether the practice of gifting failed and disgraced politicians – including, incredibly, Muscat himself – with tens of thousands of euros in golden handshakes might be a mistake.
Most people, after all, don’t get given a lovely soft cushion to fall upon when they’re forced to resign in shame over their own wrongdoing, as Rosianne Cutajar did. Some of those miscreants have actually been showered with cash TWICE over, while others thought nothing of taking the hard-earned euros of struggling taxpayers despite having well-paid six-figure salaries to jump right into after they leave parliament.
Tasks for Caruana
Immediately terminate all contracts given to government employees via nepotism, cronyism or any other irregular recruitment practice. Then investigate, penalise and prosecute all those involved in the irregular hiring of ministers’ and officials’ family members and friends, in particular those awarded salaries and benefits that are higher than the established pay scale. Finally, issue a strict ban on any future employment of government employees outside of the formal process and announce harsh penalties for anyone trying to circumvent them.
Then just blanket cancel all contracts, direct orders and other money-splashing schemes your fellow ministers have indulged in, and start everything all over again, from scratch. Your colleagues have made such a mess of things that nothing less than total dismantling and then rebuilding will work.
And finally, make a further amendment to the parliamentarian’s golden handshake scheme to disqualify anyone from benefitting twice or from taking the cash if they’ve already got another job lined up, and that bans anyone leaving parliament in disgrace from taking a single other penny out of the pockets of the Maltese people.
Clean up your own backyard before you turn the whip on hard-working citizens who’ve suffered through a pandemic and are now facing a devastating hike in prices, neither of which was within their control, to pay the price for your cronies’ wrongdoing.
Good luck, Clyde.