has lasted too long
It is now three months since the MedPoint deal claimed the attention of the public, for the wrong reasons. The deal, involving purchase by the State of a private hospital (MedPoint) from members of the Jugnauth family, was suspected to have been concluded under obscure circumstances and for much more than what the property was worth.
The MMM opposition has directed its guns against the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Health, both of whom belong to the MSM and are parties related to the former owners of MedPoint. The MedPoint ‘affair’ has become the focal point of local political life.
The Opposition’s PNQ this week was on this very subject. The irony is that, while other issues, such as dangers facing the economy and a wave of price inflation hitting hard the purchasing power of households, were relegated as less important, the PNQ fetched at best a zero political return. The MMM did not make any advance on the ‘affair’. The Prime Minister answered that he was unable to comment on the matter as it was under investigation by the Independent Commission against Corruption and that it would be inappropriate to interfere in duly constituted legal processes. He also refused to accede to the MMM’s request to institute a Select Committee of Parliament to examine the issues concerning this deal. All this was expected. The MMM insisted nevertheless to give priority to this matter over all others.
It would be fair in power politics for the MMM to continue trying to dislodge the MSM from the present coalition government. After all, it would be more comfortable for it to sit on the benches of government rather than on those of the opposition. On the side of Labour, there is no loss if the MMM helped to maintain its MSM partner in a condition of weakness by throwing in all sorts of arguments on the MedPoint ‘affair’, even if it failed to obtain an answer thereon from the leader of the government. All this might well look like one of those classic games politicians play. In politics, especially in the case of Mauritius, there is no permanent friend or foe; political partners are interchangeable and “friendship” is disposable at will. The game that has been going on for the past three months would therefore suit the convenience of a great many politicians at the cost of someone or other.
The question one may ask is whether the controversy that the MedPoint deal has made so enduring, is of any use to the country. It is difficult to imagine that this could be so under any circumstances. In fact, the more it lasts, the more it is hurting the image of the country. If at all it was necessary to have a centralised geriatric hospital due to political fiat, despite technical advice to the contrary, the priority should have been to make the hospital serve at the earliest the purpose for which it was acquired at such cost. The controversy is superfluous and entails a serious waste of energy in such a context. How could this situation have been averted?
According to replies given to the MMM leader’s PNQ of Tuesday last, it was a decision of the Cabinet to establish a geriatric hospital. After this, it was left to the Ministries concerned to give effect to this decision. Now, since public money is involved, there are laid-down rules and procedures for the concerned Ministries to go for the implementation of the approved project. As it is health institution, the Ministry of Health is involved in the specifications of the project outline; it is then the job of the Central Procurement Board to make the optimal investment decision for it through a system of bidding and contract allocation so that the public gets the best value-for-money, and it is the job of the Ministry of Finance to pay out the project costs within pre-established budget limits. Has this route been strictly adhered to? The questions being raised since the past three months have put serious doubts into the mind of the public, leaving a grave suspicion that it would not all have been done irreproachably.
To clear the atmosphere of all the mess going around, the best thing would have been for the main political protagonists on the government side, namely the Ministers of Finance, and of Health, to come out clean at the very beginning by proving clinically that no norm has been departed from and that, despite the proximity of the selling family to the concerned Ministries, no compromise has been made to the detriment of public money. It should have been convincingly established at that point in time that no influence-peddling would have been resorted to so as orientate the decision into buying up the MedPoint Hospital in particular against more favourable options. Despite sporadic statements made by the accused parties on allegations to this effect, it cannot be said that the main protagonists on the side of government have dispelled the doubts that have been setting in around this public acquisition.
If hands are clean, why should there have been any hesitation to relegate this controversy to history at once by those whose personal political careers are directly threatened? Had it been done at the very start, it would not have given rise to all sorts of speculations of wrongdoing. The public would not have been distracted away from pressing issues like the serious loss of purchasing power they have been facing lately had those concerned by the matter taken the bull by the horns and established clearly and definitely that public funds would actually not have been misappropriated. In our opinion, this controversy has lasted long enough and it would have been in the utmost public interest to play it out once and for all by giving out the facts. We want to be reassured at all times that those who are put in charge of governing us also have clean hands.
* Published in print edition on 25 March 2011