Choosing the top cop

I agree that subjecting the police commissioner’s appointment to a qualified majority in Parliament would be a better way of doing it – but it is also a system that assumes we have a bunch of responsible and mature MPs

Right: Vivian de Gray, and his successor, Alfred Bencini
Right: Vivian de Gray, and his successor, Alfred Bencini

Whether we like it or not, police commissioners were always political appointees.

When Dom Mintoff returned to power in 1971, one of the first steps he took was to ditch Vivian de Gray from the job and replace him with Alfred Bencini.

I need not go into the ‘Mintoff vs. de Gray’ story except for the fact that it was Mintoff himself who had originally appointed him in 1956. The story of his replacement recalls the fact that Mintoff expected the police commissioner to be a puppet with strings attached to the government’s hand. Bencini refused to be Mintoff’s pawn and he eventually resigned. He went on to publish the story in his autobiographical book: ‘Nothing but the Truth’ published in 1981.

That should have been an eye-opener. But, alas, it was not.

The story went on and on. When the PN was returned to power in 1987, the infamous Lawrence Pullicino was forced to retire from his post of police commissioner... and later was formally accused for his involvement in the death of Nardu Debono while being held in custody at the police headquarters.

Unfortunately, Malta seemed to have learnt nothing from the chequered history of police commissioners appointed during the Mintoff era. The PN government continued with the same system in which the appointment of the commissioner was at the discretion of the Minister responsible for the police.

This system was open to problems because by law the police commissioner wields certain executive powers and having his position itself subject to the discretion of a Cabinet minister could one day spell trouble – big trouble as police commissioner Lawrence Cutajar found to his chagrin. Would the police commissioner really investigate the Minister who had appointed him – or any Cabinet minister – if the case arose? How ‘independent’ can such an investigation really be, if the commissioner’s tenure depends on the government of the day?

This should have been obvious from day one. But the possible investigation of people sopra ogni sospetto (beyond all suspicion) was never seriously considered.

So Malta has laboured on for over 55 years with the same system until Sod’s law came into effect: ‘if it can happen, it will’.

Given this historical background, the system proposed by the new Prime Minister, Robert Abela, is a breath of fresh air – even though it does not go as far as many wish.

The selection process will initially be in the hands of the Public Service Commission (PSC), the Constitutional body that is supposed to ensure independence in appointments, promotions and discharges in the civil service. The Commission will issue a public call and will also be responsible for drawing up the call and setting the criteria for eligibility.

The Commission will evaluate the applications and shortlist two candidates who are most eligible for the post. Following the shortlisting, the Prime Minister will then choose the police commissioner.

The Prime Minister’s choice of candidate will not be final. The candidate will have to face a grilling before the Public Appointments Committee (PAC). In this forum, as Abela pointed out, the Opposition will have the opportunity to put forward any questions to the candidate.

A vote in the House of Representatives will then be taken on the appointment of the police commissioner. A simple majority will suffice.

The Opposition wanted more. It wants the appointment subject to an approval of two-thirds of the members of the House of Representatives. It claimed that, effectively, the Prime Minister would still be choosing the police commissioner himself; more so since the government holds a majority on both the PSC and the PAC which means that both are under the PM’s control.

The Prime Minister dismissed the PN’s proposal as ‘unworkable’ and also explained that the public call is in line with the recommendation made by the Venice Commission in its report on Malta.

In truth, however, we already have the appointment of both the Auditor General and the Ombudsman subject to a two-thirds approval in Parliament. To date these appointments have not presented any insurmountable hurdles, either under a PN or under an PL government. I agree that subjecting the police commissioner’s appointment to a qualified majority in Parliament would be a better way of doing it – but it is also a system that assumes we have a bunch of responsible and mature MPs.

Abela’s proposed system goes halfway. The country has to wait to see whether it passes the test of time.

A plus for Aaron

Previously Parliamentary Secretary for EU Funds, Aaron Farrugia, was appointed Minister of the Environment, Climate Change and Planning in Abela’s Cabinet.

In an interview with another paper, he said that he will start publishing a register of all meetings he has with stakeholders, in a move aimed at promoting transparency and good governance.

He explained his decision in this manner: ‘This Transparency Register is in line with the 2017 Labour Party Electoral Manifesto, the European Commission’s 2016 proposal for a European Transparency Register, as well as the best practices learned from other member states of the European Union.’

Nothing original here – but as the saying goes, we do not need to invent the wheel to improve our country’s governance.

I believe Farrugia is on the right track regarding this and his is a welcome effort at transparency.

I can assure him, however, not just that his register will not remain empty but also that, unfortunately, the problems resulting from Malta’s size cannot be brushed off with such a register.

He will be assailed by people in whatever social function he attends and whatever ‘thrill’ he is invited to join in – for such is the way ministers are greeted and treated in this fair land.

But then, he can hardly keep a register of all his informal meetings outside his office.

This is not to denigrate the system he says he will be adopting. He has made a courageous move.

But what is simple in a big country can become irrelevant in our small pond. So Aaron Farrugia will eventually find out that he must also keep on to the straight and narrow, even when he is relaxing by watching a football game...

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