For want of a horseshoe nail

The time has come for a national independent commission on the Police Force, on the way it works and how it assumes responsibilities from existing laws, and to recommend changes in laws and organisation

Many must have heard of the medieval proverbial rhyme showing that small actions can result in large consequences. If not, let me remind everyone of the rhyme that must be haunting Prime Minister Joseph Muscat:

‘For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.’

Whether it is the misdeed of some slipshod blacksmith or the misdeed of some trigger happy dim-wit driving one of Muscat’s ‘star candidates’ around... that is how the ‘stars’ suddenly fall from the firmament above, crashing down to the ground, trampled upon by the hoi polloi.

The other week Muscat’s second budget was completely sidelined by the shooting incident involving the driver of Minister Manuel Mallia... and Muscat came a cropper.

It was an unplanned, unforeseen incident that upset Muscat’s applecart and his carefully laid out plans to turn this year’s budget proposals into a triumphal cry that would leave the Opposition speechless. Instead Muscat was first paralysed, then ‘angry and disgusted’ and finally resorted to bemoaning the fact that the Opposition leader was using the shooting incident to score political points! As if that is not what any alert Opposition would do in any democracy!

In this case, Muscat’s grand strategy for his job as Prime Minister – that of monitoring and checking ministers while he planned events and reflected the people’s wishes, whatever they are from moment to moment – has utterly failed. After all, the buck does indeed stop at his door, in spite of the way he tried to deflect it on to inquiries – magisterial or otherwise.

To be sure, what happened immediately after the incident turned what was already a mess of some proportion into a bigger disaster of gargantuan proportions. The failed attempts at distorting the truth and the reckless moving of material evidence before the magisterial access on site was concluded, have shown that Minister Mallia’s entourage is not fit for purpose. More so, when his political responsibilities include the Police Force. This can only mean that he should carry the can.

Manuel Mallia might justifiably feel that he has been let down by those he had chosen to trust: there is no greater disappointment in life than when someone you trust shows that he or she did not deserve that trust. But as a minister, he has to accept political responsibility for the mistakes of his subordinates, and this could mean offering to resign, depending on the circumstances and seriousness of the case as well as on the perception of public opinion.

The Prime Minister knows this but he dithers. Four days after the incident, he pleaded ignorance about who had given the wrong and misleading reports to the Department of Information.

Suddenly raiding the Armier boathouses and checking the decades-long electricity abuse there will not divert the media’s attention or assuage the widespread worry about the incident.

People are asking too many questions about Muscat’s relationship with Minister Manuel Mallia, with some suspecting that Mallia is somehow above Muscat’s reproach. I do not think that this is so but Joseph Muscat’s decision to weather the storm rather than taking a decisive step to make a clean cut of it, has strengthened this popular perception, however mistaken it can be.

Someone on the social media compared Muscat’s lack of decision in this case with the way he had summarily dismissed Anglu Farrugia from the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Then he was clearly in command of the situation, and his decision was a strategic one for which he found a convenient excuse. Muscat’s ruthlessness in the way he got rid of Farrugia indicated his leadership qualities that must include ruthlessness when necessary. His lack of action in this case indicates the opposite.

It is true that the mess is not of Muscat’s making. He had carefully plotted the public relations exercise that was to be launched by means of the budget speech and was to last at least until the end of the year. These plans have been upset by an unforeseen circumstance that forced Joseph Muscat to show that he is comfortable planning events and popular reactions, while hardly adept at coping with a sudden crisis. The truth is staring in everybody’s face: Muscat has failed in a test in which he could not afford to fail.

Suddenly, and for the first time since he was elected Labour leader, Muscat’s leadership credentials are being questioned by the average man in the street, and not just by the avid PN supporter for whom Muscat can do no good.

Time to police the police

Irrespective of the inevitable political fallout from the incident caused by a police constable acting irresponsibly while being on duty as a minister’s driver, the incident should serve as a call out for the need of a major study on the way our police force acts, its various protocols such as those regarding treatment of arrested persons and the circumstances that justify the use of firearms, as well as its general organisation and its curious line of command.

For a long time, it has been obvious that there was something wrong with our police force. Political interference, inept decisions and internal politics within the force have had their toll.

We have had too many accusations of police brutality and abuse, unexplainable police decisions to prosecute and unexplainable police decisions to refrain from prosecuting. Its ethos is awry

All these problems have not cropped up recently since Manuel Mallia assumed ministerial responsibility for the Police Force, although the increase in the number of complaints indicate that things got from bad to worse on this watch.

There is no doubt that something is rotten in our Police Force. This is not to say that there are no honest reliable officers who could be relied upon if a serious reform were to launch the renaissance the force badly needs.

The time has come for a national independent commission on the Police Force, on the way it works and how it assumes the responsibilities emanating from existing laws, and to recommend changes in existing laws and organisation.

This is where the Opposition should be asked to participate.

Will the government, having burnt much more than its fingers, take up this challenge? Or shall it continue to bemoan the unlucky flare-up that was caused by someone’s moment of madness and do nothing about it? 

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