An investigation into the building of Mater Dei Hospital found that the way the project was handled was anything but professional. A report by the National Audit Office puts to shame all the stakeholders but particularly the Foundation for Medical Services, which was responsible for the project.

The findings again confirm a national malady – unpreparedness in adhering to basic norms of accountability and transparency. This most serious shortcoming has run across much of the work of every successive administration; it ultimately exposes lack of enough willpower to ensure correctness in the use of public funds.

What is most galling is the way practically every administration attacks another for their own same weaknesses, the same shortcomings and the same arrogance in dealing with criticism over their lack of proper governance.

In the case of the Mater Dei project, as in others over the years, it would seem no checks and balances were in place or, else, they were ineffective. The ultimate victim of an administration’s lack of foresight is the taxpayer who would have to bear the extra cost often incurred through negligence or mishandling.

Much was made three years ago about defects found in the construction of the hospital, prompting the Finance Minister to order an investigation. He felt there were significant doubts on the levels of good governance, transparency and sound financial management throughout the process leading to the design, building, execution, certification, payment, completion and eventual closure of the entire project between 1989 and 2011. Doubts were also raised on whether the applicable national and EU procurement and financial directives and regulations were adhered to.

These were good reasons that merited investigating but the Auditor General said he was unable to carry out a comprehensive audit “primarily due to the significant lack of documentation with respect to all stages of the project”. Did such documentation exist or were documents ‘misplaced’ at some point?

The Audit Office felt the foundation’s inability to provide basic information relating to a project of this magnitude represented an institutional failure and gross negligence in the administration of public funds. This is not to mention also the waiver clause that exposed the government to “significant risks”, even if there are different interpretations about what the waiver really entailed.

Moreover, an inadequate and unreliable audit trail detracted from the expected level of accountability, transparency, fairness and governance warranted in this project of national importance. The report shows an unbelievable degree of lack of administrative responsibility. This was further accentuated by the reaction of politicians who had been involved in the project at the time and were approached by this newspaper for their comment on the audit findings, one of them even saying he had now left politics and had nothing to say.

He was not the first ‘retired’ Nationalist politician to take such a stand. One remains accountable to the decisions one makes, especially in politics.

Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party lost no time in making political capital out of the report and, paying no attention to the beam in its own eye, lashed out at successive Nationalist administrations for lack of accountability.

The two political parties can trade charges until they are blue in the face but the taxpayer is not amused. Integrity demands good governance all the time.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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