A watershed moment

This is not to say that Muscat never made mistakes before, but that in this case he failed when he was tested on how he reacts to circumstances that were not of his own doing 

There are many things which undermine discipline in the police corps
There are many things which undermine discipline in the police corps

The sacking of Manuel Mallia, the Prime Minister’s first choice for the post of Home Affairs Minister, signifies, in my opinion, a watershed moment in Maltese politics, as well as in Joseph Muscat’s premiership.

One cannot but conclude that Joseph Muscat had to sack Mallia reluctantly after a three week period in which the public outcry about the incident involving Mallia’s driver and its aftermath did not abate. There is no doubt that there was a subsequent attempt at a cover-up on the part of a number of people in the Police Force and that this fact kept the media focusing on the story – except for the media that support Labour unconditionally.

The Prime Minister failed to nip the story in the bud and allowed it to grow to such proportions that it was no longer possible for him to control it. He practically allowed it to go out of his hands and this resulted in the first significant dent in the public perception of Muscat’s leadership capabilities. 

This is not to say that Muscat never made mistakes before, but that in this case he failed when he was tested on how he reacts to circumstances that were not of his own doing. His eventual sacking of Mallia and his appointment of a new minister and a new Police Commissioner were undoubtedly the right moves, of course. But the three-week interval between the incident and the final resolution weakened his moral authority as head of government.

People rightly expect that the government of their country is led by a good leader whose authority is uncontested and respected – irrespective of whether they support the political party he comes from; irrespective of whether they voted him in; and irrespective of whether his decisions are considered right or wrong. The way the effects of this incident were allowed to fester for three weeks led to the impression of Muscat being a weak and ineffective leader, after all. This was the first real test about Muscat’s mettle. 

Manuel Mallia claims that he never approved or participated in any other way in the cover-up. Mallia is a seasoned criminal lawyer and it is his experience in this field that gives him the perspective to defend himself in the way he does. The point that Mallia keeps on missing – even in his letter to the Prime Minister after he was sacked and which was published on Wednesday evening – is that he was politically responsible for the people who made the mess.

In this letter he tries to find fault with the way the inquiry about his conduct was carried out, and I must admit that this is hardly faultless. For example, it gave the Nelson’s eye to intriguing aspects of the follow-up to the shooting incident. It was a hurried job as the Prime Minister gave it a two-week deadline and a seasoned lawyer, like Manuel Mallia, can easily find a number of glaring shortcomings in it, as well as in what was left un-researched at the expense of what was emphasised in its conclusions.

But this is hardly the point. From day one, Mallia spoke as if he did not understand the concept of political responsibility and this was his real downfall. He still cannot understand that on appointing him Home Minister, the Prime Minister had entrusted him with the political responsibility of a domain of the state in which there was a patently evident gross failure and an incredible loss of public trust… and that this is the real reason why he should carry the can. This is not about being found guilty or innocent in a court of law, as Mallia seems to keep on doggedly thinking.

The incident also signified the first time in Maltese politics when a Prime Minister had to acquiesce to media pressure. The media has proved to be a very strong player in our democracy, as it is in other western countries with a strong democratic tradition.

This development is noteworthy because, not so long ago, the media in Malta was not so powerful. In their time, Borg Olivier and Mintoff could afford to ignore the media with hardly any political effect among the electorate.

Today the situation is no longer so. As the country began to shed slowly its colonial servile mentality, the media in Malta found its true vocation. Besides this, the social media also played a very important part – today news travels fast and opinions about ongoing events are dished out as fast. Even though certain comments and opinions expressed on the social media are not to be taken seriously, the net effect of the social media on public opinion cannot be dismissed.

Muscat’s predecessor was also harassed by the media and his ignoring the media was partly responsible for the unprecedented debacle of the PN at the polls. Muscat knows this and also realises that he cannot afford to ignore the media and public opinion. His final resolution of the incident was mostly forced by this situation. This is not to denigrate Muscat: people should look at a Prime Minister who bows to the people’s will with respect, not disapproval.

The other bête noire in this episode is the ethos of the police force. This has been going downhill for quite some time. The efforts made in the 1987-92 PN administrations to revive the police force from the ruins that it found itself in after 16 years of Mintoff’s way of doing things were only partly successful and the way back down the slippery slope was – in hindsight – a foregone conclusion.

Mallia’s familiarity with both police officers and criminals as a result of his professional work as a defence lawyer did not help him: it made the situation worse; more so as his tenure as the responsible minister saw an increase in political interference in the running of the police force.

The way in which the different levels of police officers – starting from the Acting Police Commissioner – address each other belies an unacceptable lack of discipline within the force. Its evidently habitual and routine way of covering up for the mistakes of ‘one of ours’ is unacceptable, even though this trend is found in all police forces all over the world.

In our police force today, there is too much hobnobbing with criminals and their lawyers – a familiarity that is even evident in the corridors of the law courts outside the halls where the two sides become antagonists in front of the presiding judge or magistrate.

There are too many blood relations among the police, especially with the idea that a police officer’s sons and daughters are encouraged to follow in their parents’ careers. There are too many illicit sexual liaisons between police officers. All these things continue to undermine the discipline in the corps.

Both Minister Carmelo Abela and Police Commissioner Michael Cassar are serious people. However, it seems to me that what is being expected from them is too much, if they are to deliver the shake-up that the police force needs. 

I still think that the police force needs to be tackled by an overall investigation on its powers and on how it works, carried out by people who are not part of the same force. Having a look from outside will uncover the nasty things that those inside – all touting ‘ok hi?’ and ‘kif int siehbi?’ to each other – can hardly discern.

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