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COVID19: Government bean counters lost in the shuffle

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The Auditor-General, the watchdog keeping public finances in check, was the main stumbling block in getting the government’s private sector aid package through parliament, which the finance minister rescinded for fear of being rejected outright in the House.

All opposition parties in parliament insisted that the Audit Office of the Republic be included in the delivery of the COVID-19 aid package, as an observer.

After all, the package will be in the form of loan guarantees, dished out by banks (that are regulated by the Central Bank), which when in default, will be repaid from taxpayers’ funds.

Which is also why the opposition parties suggested that the loan guarantees be reduced from €1.5 bln to €1 bln, and to increase that ceiling, if and when needed.

Furthermore, two and half months after the ruling party leader boasted that this was “the best aid package in Europe, the world even”, the only thing the government has done is to fuel the resentment over the widening gap in public vs private sector wages.

Civil servants losing nothing, and private-sector workers are sacrificing a significant part of their salaries, as in 2013, with unemployment expected to spike again.

Small companies are even wondering if they need yet another loan, that will burden them with even greater levels of debt.

By allowing the Audit Office to take part in the process and advise on the transparency and viability of loan guarantees, the government would have avoided yet another embarrassing episode of being accused of prejudice when it comes to who it would support.

It would also rid itself of any suspicion or accusation of arbitrarily aiding specific sectors of the economy while leaving others out.

In its mission statement, the Audit Office declares that “our focus is to objectively and reliably inform the public, with a view to enhancing confidence towards the State and its institutions.”

What is it that the administration did not like? The ‘objectivity’ part?

Or the bit about ‘enhancing confidence towards the State and its institutions’, which the government has been struggling with ever since President Anastasiades and the ruling DISY party came into power.

Were these state guarantees for loans made-to-measure with specific recipients in mind?

Or is it that no matter how hard it tries to project a people-friendly image, the Anastasiades administration views the persona of the Auditor General, Odysseas Michaelides, as a modern-day Freddy Krueger?

Why should the taxpayers’ only defender be labelled as the bad guy, when the Audit Office should, in fact, be doing what it should have done decades ago?

The department has in fact seen improvements over the years on how it audits public services and contracts, but the lack of human resources, qualified forensic accountants and the absence of political support to uphold and implement the Audit Office’s recommendations, has failed to project a sense of confidence in the general public based on trust and transparency.

There are Audit Office conclusions that not everyone is happy about. In some cases, even considered extreme. But is that not what public accountability should be all about?

As the media faces constant obstacles in access to public records and struggles to investigate wrongdoings, fraud and scandals that are related to state funds, the only voice of sanity and justice left is that of the Audit Office.

The government should get off its high horse, push aside its party-driven interests and seem, for once, to aid the small to medium-sized enterprises and their workers who are sacrificing wages, work and health to stay financially sound.