04 May 2005

The Web

A balancing act

A long-standing member of cabinet, Censu Galea feels Government is not doing enough to communicate its programme of reforms to the people.
He insists ministers are caught up with their work and failing to nurture the person-to-person contact important for Maltese society. In Fenech Adami mode, Galea believes truth will prevail and the reforms will eventually deliver the goods.
As minister for competitiveness and communication, Galea is currently captaining port reform and says that by October the new cargo handling contract should be awarded through a competitive tender process. The reform, which will focus on all services offered at the ports, is expected to bring about a reduction in costs for industry to the tune of 25 per cent.
But the minister refrains from committing himself to a package of measures to boost the country’s competitiveness in the wake of a failed social pact. Government has to strike a balance between taking decisions and not creating unnecessary unrest, he argues.

How will industry benefit from port reform?
The final aim of the reform is to bring about a change in work practices in such a way that services performed in our ports are not paid for twice as is the case today. Eventually, we will be in a position whereby those receiving services in the port will experience lower costs and greater efficiency. The target is to have the total costs of services rendered in the ports go down by around 25 per cent.

When is the reform expected to be rolled out?
A factor that conditions our target date is the existing agreement between the Malta Maritime Authority and the Cargo Handling Company, a GWU company. It is just part of the problem because the reform will not focus solely on cargo handling. When we speak of the port there are various service providers that contribute to industry’s cost factor.
The agreement with Cargo Handling Company comes to an end in July next year. In December we declared that cargo handling services would be subject to a competitive tender.
The call for expression of interest should be out by end May after which a shortlist is drawn up. The tender would then follow and I understand that by October the new contractor will be chosen to allow time for the purchase of necessary equipment and recruitment of personnel before taking over.

Criticism has often been levelled at Government for allowing the GWU to have a monopoly in the ports. Nonetheless, the contemplated reform will only serve to dismantle the GWU’s cargo handling monopoly and replace it with another one. Why is only one operator going to be selected?
In some sense the criticism is right. The handling of cargo in our ports has been an issue for years now. The biggest difficulty has always been the agreement entered into with the GWU which did not allow the possibility for disciplinary action to be taken by the Government or the MMA if the company did not live up to its obligations. The operator being the largest union and in view of industrial action that crippled our ports in the past, it was never an easy situation to tackle. We waited for the end of the existing agreement before taking action to reform cargo handling.
The new agreement will outline the obligations of the new operator but it will also outline the Maritime Authority’s rights. We’ve already been through this with the port pilots and the agreement reached with them two years ago has also ensured the port is not threatened by stoppages at every turn while ensuring a better service for port users.

Is the reform of cargo handling one way of attacking the GWU’s commercial base thus weakening the country’s largest union?
This is not our interest. All we want is to have an efficient system and Cargo Handling Company can itself compete for the tender. It will be adjudicated on the merits of its submission.

Despite the introduction of Malta Enterprise and the introduction of e-government, industry complains of the layers upon layers of bureaucracy. A prominent industrialist recently warned that certain companies can move out of the country if bureaucracy was not streamlined. What is your ministry doing to deal with bureaucracy?
I am conscious of the constant attack on bureaucracy from various quarters. We have to be careful because bureaucracy is there to supposedly make government’s running more efficient. In reality not everyone adheres to correct work practices and Government has to ensure that operations in its various agencies and departments are streamlined.
As a ministry we have streamlined the process for issuing trading licences for smaller operators. Only last week we organised a seminar on the Europe-wide initiative Solvit, targeted to offer a single reference point to provide a quick and easy solution for businesses or individuals having problems related to the internal market .
Reducing bureaucracy will always boil down to the human factor, the person behind the counter filling up the application. One of the issues that constantly crops up concerns applications whereby the person making them is required to collate or fill in different forms and is kept oblivious of the whole package required. Often the person goes to the department with information ‘A’ and is then told he would also have to bring information ‘B’. This aspect we are trying to streamline.
In MEPA we have created an internal auditor to verify whether processes are being streamlined. Similar initiatives have to continue. This ministry is co-ordinating with other ministries and although there are no huge visible results yet our commitment is to have an identifiable percentage reduction in bureaucracy, which can be used as a benchmark.

In an interview with this newspaper last week, Adrian Bajada, the president of the Federation of Industry said Government did not seem interested in conducting a business impact audit for all new legislation or EU directive. Do you believe the time is ripe for such assessments to be introduced?
Government has tried to co-ordinate the introduction of regulations and legal notices by passing these through the Office of the Prime Minister before becoming law. Prior to that every minister just signed legal notices without giving due consideration to the wider picture and how businesses were going to be affected.
But what Mr Bajada is asking for is a new process. Although we haven’t arrived at that stage the process for issuing legal notices today is better co-ordinated because Cabinet gets a chance to discuss them.
As for EU legislation this requires impact assessments to be undertaken. Directives and regulations discussed by the council of ministers since membership were all issues carried over from pre-membership days but as new legislation is rolled out we would have to discuss and consult with the different stakeholders.
Non-governmental organisations have their own ways of obtaining information on what is going on in the EU but I have no problem in handing over information. As a country, however, we have to learn to respect consultation deadlines.

The Nationalist Government’s policy to create autonomous authorities to administer various functions of public administration has created a new level of bureaucracy. Is it time to review that policy?
These authorities have to have clearly demarcated competences but we have to strive for better co-ordination between them. For example until a couple of months ago port security was the responsibility of different authorities including the police, customs, the AFM and the MMA. I brought them together and formed a committee to better streamline security procedures in the port.
There is still much to be done.

Has the policy failed, is it time to reduce the number of authorities?
As a Government we are looking into the functions of each and every authority and assessing whether the circumstances which necessitated the creation of the authority in the first place exist anymore or have changed.

The social pact which sought to boost competitiveness by proposing a series of cost reduction measures did not materialise and instead Government went ahead with the Public Holidays’ measure. Is Government preparing a new package of initiatives to boost competitiveness?
We wish to have an agreement on a social pact. Unfortunately that has not been the case until now. Unions believe there are other ways of boosting competitiveness different to those proposed by Government. But I believe we have to broaden our perspectives on how we look at our country. Within a global context where commercial pressures from abroad are having a negative impact not only on Malta but the EU as a bloc, we have to put our heads together and find solutions.

But Government is there to govern. The social pact failed. Only the public holidays measure was introduced. What happens if the social pact never materialises?
Government cannot stop at that. We still hope that unions and all MCESD members realise that it is better to move forward together. Maybe it’s still too early to say how Government should go ahead but I don’t think we should stop at the public holidays measures. In the national interest we have to ensure that everybody gives his best especially in the public sector.

But aren’t we losing another year to implement measures required to boost competitiveness?
Whoever is in Government has to create the right balance. If we push too much we could experience problems from unions.

There have been accusations that Malta is a flag of convenience for outdated ships. What is being done to redress this negative image?
The Maritime Authority has for years followed trends in the shipping industry. Single hulled tankers were part of Malta’s registry because they were the ships available on the market at the time.
One must note that from day one of membership Malta did not ask for postponements or derogations on EU legislation. A month before the Erika disaster in 1999 as a ministry we had already submitted a list of changes to our legislative package.
We have done a lot over recent years to improve. And from time to time the Paris-based MOU issues its listing of countries and I am confident that in the next analysis Malta will be shifted from the black list to the grey list.

Is there a programme to phase out single hull tankers?
When the EU discussed the phasing out of single hull tankers, Malta supported that position. We have to continue working to reduce single hull tankers. But in all our dealings with the EU we insist that any new rules have to apply world-wide and not just on a regional basis. Applying new rules on a regional EU-wide basis will probably solve our problems but do little to redress the situation on the global stage.

The PN has suffered two crushing defeats at the polls. The Prime Minister has gone on record saying that the results were a logical reaction to the hard measures taken but the fruit will be borne in three years’ time. Is it fair to tell people to wait three years?
Local elections have been held on a yearly basis and they are a barometer of the public’s mood at that particular time. Local elections are one way through which people can deliver their message to the authorities and political parties. In the past there have been local elections lost by the PN even on the eve of a general election but voters eventually returned a Nationalist government.
The PN is conscious of the difficulties the country faces today and although it is our job to ensure people are living a comfortable life I am sure they will appreciate the benefits of the measures being taken for everybody’s sake.

But Government can be taking tough measures but implementing them badly, with little consultation and no communication. Is the public mood conditioned by a wrong method of government?
In politics everything can be done better. As a party, as a government our intention is to enable this country to prosper and create wealth for its citizens. In past years we had a slogan, ‘Is-sewwa jirbah zgur’ (Truth will prevail) and I still believe it is adequate for today’s situation. We cannot runaway from the responsibility of doing what is right. While we should continue to strive to make things better even now I am confident these reforms will deliver the goods in the long term.

People were promised the good life before EU membership. But soon after the 2003 election all the problems started cropping up and people were faced with painful reforms and hard fiscal measures. Were people tricked?
Apart from being a minister I am also a parliamentarian and I try to keep in touch with my constituents on a regular basis. The people I meet express their criticism but more than feeling tricked they feel that Government’s message is not reaching the public. As a minister I have the responsibility to ensure that Government’s work is transmitted to the people. One of the biggest problem ministers face is to continue meeting the public. We have to find a way of increasing this contact. Despite the influx of newspapers, radios and all sorts of media person-to-person contact remains an all important factor in Maltese society and as a Government we have to make sure that this contact is nurtured.

Censu Galea was interviewed by Kurt Sansone

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