Brian Wilson: CalMac ferry fiasco is all about the SNP covering its back

David MacBrayne Ltd, parent of Caledonian MacBrayne, is under new leadership. In the most audacious public appointment of the century, its chairman is Erik Østergaard, whose day job is as chief executive of Denmark’s logistics trade body.

You are unlikely to have heard of Mr Østergaard without a niche interest in Danish logistics or by paying close attention to the incredible saga of two CalMac ferries which lie derelict at Port Glasgow, five years late and with costs drifting towards £300million, enough to build a significant fleet.

For 14 years, Mr Østergaard was on the board of Caledonian Marine Assets Limited (CMAL), the Scottish Government quango responsible for procuring ferries. For seven – through every day of the Ferguson debacle – he has been chairman of CMAL. Now, hey presto, he is de facto head of CalMac.

The first feature of this appointment is its naked partisanship in a dispute which is very much alive and will, hopefully, be tested one day in court. The Scottish Government’s case over Ferguson’s is that all fault lay with the owners (i.e. Jim McColl) who kept changing the design, leading to collapse when CMAL wouldn’t pay up.

An alternative version is that CMAL were a hopeless client (under Østergaard’s leadership) but also victims of the SNP’s political determination to override objections and announce prematurely that the order had gone to Ferguson’s. Hard hats in the air and vote SNP for their commercial genius. Who cares what lies ahead?

Apart from taxpayers and communities directly affected, the biggest victim of this scandal has been CalMac which, denied the two ferries, struggles to maintain services with a depleted fleet. They are in the front-line of the flak. Now the man on the CalMac bridge, by courtesy of the Scottish Government, is the individual who presided over CMAL.

In the absence of a full public inquiry which Sturgeon has no intention of granting, we must make do with findings by an all-party Holyrood committee that the whole business was a “catastrophic failure” in which CMAL, as client, played a leading role. It failed to exercise “robust due diligence” or, along with Transport Scotland (i.e. Scottish Government) to “properly assess the financial stability of the yard’s new owner or its capabilities in project management and design”.

One wonders what, in any of that, qualifies Mr Østergaard to head the victim of that failure – which was allowed no hand in “management and design” of the contract, far less where the order was placed. According to Edward Mountain MSP, who chaired the Holyrood committee, the appointment of Mr Østergaard is “absolutely astounding” as CMAL were “a major part of the failure”.

At this point, it is instructive to look at the mechanics of Østergaard’s appointment (which is also symptomatic of the whole rotten burgh of Scottish quangos). The practice is that a three person panel makes a recommendation to the minister who, unless he or she has an inquiring mind, rubber-stamps it. The trick is to get a panel that knows exactly what is expected of it.

This one – quite wrongly, in my view – included Frances Pacitti, the civil servant who heads the division with responsibility for both CMAL and MacBrayne, creating a vast vested interest in maintaining the disputed narrative that responsibility for the Ferguson failure did not lie with CMAL (or its chairman) or the Scottish Government. Then there was a professional quangoteer, Andrew Thin, who has picked up seven appointments through the same process.

The principle of people who depend on quango appointments also being used as “independent” panellists is dubious, to say the least. The third member was a Bill Smith who has been the Scottish Government’s Public Appointments Adviser since 2008. If that was constructed to be an “independent” panel, then I am the proverbial banana – and it duly produced Mr Østergaard, by inference vindicating him from all previous fault.

Now consider the recent words of Kenny MacAskill, who was Justice Minister when Ferguson’s was “rescued” in 2014 by Jim McColl, with Scottish Government backing before it all went sour. According to that well-placed source, the entire fiasco has its “roots” in the SNP’s determination to announce “a political triumph”, overriding all doubts including those of CMAL.

If there is one man who knows where the bodies are buried in that saga, he is Mr Østergaard of Copenhagen and now of David MacBrayne Ltd, via ministerial patronage. Meanwhile, the damage to west coast communities grows by the week. But who cares about that when there are backs to be covered and truths to be concealed?

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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