Sunday, 21 October 2012

Strange things happen

This article was published in the Malta Independent on Sunday  21 10 2012
The unofficial election campaign hardly feels any different from an official one and with good reason.   Government has lost its parliamentary majority, is keeping the chamber operating like a talking shop where no major decisions are brought to a vote and is groping in the dark for a solution to get the 2013 Budget through the House before December sets in.
Unless we are going for an official election campaign running in parallel with our Christmas shopping and carol singing, the latest feasible 2012 election date would be 1st December which means that parliament would have to be dissolved by 29th October.   If government plans to present a budget to act as platform for delivering the ‘see what you will miss if you don’t elect us’ message, this would mean that the budget will have to be read in parliament next week.
Risking presenting the Budget later in November could mean that we spend Christmas in hard election campaign as government would be in caretaker mode once parliament gets dissolved following failure of the parliamentary vote.
A political grinch may ruin our Christmas.   Budget presentation in the last week of October is not out of the ordinary.  The last five budget for 2008 – 2012 were read in parliament on 15th October 2007, 3rd November 2008, 9th November 2009, 25th October 2010, and 14th November 2011.    All showed a wish to wrap up the budget debate in parliament before December sets in and there is no reason why it should be different this time.   But strange things happen before an election.
Long expired collective agreement for public sector employees gets signed, car park concession gets renewed for the long term, car spaces are rented back at premium prices for a term which makes you wonder if we will still be using cars when it expires, and private hospitals gets rented out by the government with an option to buy and a commitment to upgrade and improve.
All these strange things have a common thread.   They all sacrifice the taxpayers’ interest in government’s quest for votes that might help it cling on to its long held tenure in power.   All these measures are tactically positive but strategically hopeless.
In the cacophony of an election campaign everything becomes tactical. Everything gets measured in terms of the impact on voters' psychology and ultimately how many votes such measures are going to gain or lose. The long term strategy is discarded by the way side and sacrificed to the political necessity of the here and now, rather than the strategic gains for a sustainable future.

There should be a strategy within which these tactical measures should fit. But if the strategy is what I think it should be these measures go diametrically against the strategic objectives we should be aiming for.

In health service we should be aiming for more active private sector participation in provisioning of health services so that the patient will have more competitive choice. We should be moving to launching a national health insurance scheme where everyone has to be covered with at least a minimum basic cover and where the premium is to be paid on a commercial basis, except that the premium should be deductible against taxable income and those who do not pay taxes should be fully refunded for the portion for which they do not benefit tax credit.

Mater Dei would then be offering commercial services chargeable to the national insurance company or to private insurance if the client opts for private insurance. But the client would have a real choice between public and private hospitals and Mater Dei will receive an efficiency boost of good management as it will have to operate like a commercial firm safeguarding its cost base and protecting its revenues.

The acquisition by government of St Philip's moves completely in the opposite direction. Rather than creating space for private sector health services we are extending the public sector into operations which hitherto were within the private sector domain. In the meantime those who opt for private sector health services get more dependent on a dominant supplier as through government intervention another private operator is permanently wiped off the board.
Government has no priority for proper strategy.   Its priority is for finding an immediate alternative to another winter of confusion at Mater Dei with congestion in the Emergency/Admittance department and patient beds in ward corridors.   Rather than admit total failure in planning and opt of re-opening more wards at St. Luke’s as a recovery hospital, it opts for a solution which delivers the least value for money to the taxpayer.
To add insult to injury, government insists on proceeding with the deal notwithstanding that a clear majority in parliament demands postponement until it is scrutinised by National Audit Office (NAO).  
When I was Chairman of Mid-Med Bank in 1997 – 1998, the Bank’s board had approved a deal to acquire an adjacent building to extend the Centru Ruzar Briffa.    I had personally insisted to send the deal for prior vetting by the NAO before taking a formal commitment.  Rather than admire the transparency I was criticised by PN quarters for favouring the seller who happened to be a ex-client of my earlier consultancy.   The deal was scuppered as the NAO took its time and early 1998 elections made it imprudent to conclude such a deal in an election campaign.   Time has proven how expedient it would have been for the Bank to proceed with the deal as our successors, after substantial and costly redevelopment on the same footprint, had to rent out part of the extension at premium rates.   
Now those who were critical of the deal in spite of it being sent for prior vetting of the NAO are turning things on their head and insist on paying first and auditing later even though their board of directors (parliament) is demanding otherwise.

The same applies for public sector collective agreement. This country needs to incentivise public sector employees to seek better and more productive fortunes in the private sector where we can get more value added per employee with which to grow our GDP to support our national debt and our social security programmes.

The strategy should therefore be to make public sector employment less attractive compared to private sector employment.

Public sector employees have security of tenure that private sector employees cannot even imagine and this security should be reflected in lower remuneration packages and inferior conditions of employment.

Yet public sector employees are regaled on election eve with a 6 year agreement with guaranteed annual increases over and above the normal increases within their scale, they are awarded more flexibility to work shorter hours, and they are allowed to enjoy their summer half days which are practically unheard of in the private sector.  And all this when most of the public sector continues to operate without any performance metrics where the lazy can take easy cover behind those who perform an honest full day's work without risk of retribution and certainly without risk of job loss, redundancy  or dismissal.
Strange things happen on the eve of an election.   Probably we have seen nothing yet.

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