The inevitable politicisation of public appointments

The appointment of Malta’s police commissioner has always been the prerogative of the Prime Minister; but never before has the Prime Minister’s control of institutions come under so much international scrutiny, as with the Panama Papers scandal of 2016.

It was the revelation that Joseph Muscat’s right-hand man Keith Schembri and his minister had opened secret companies in Panama, in the context of a global journalistic exposé, that led to what one might call the lack of appetite inside the police force for an effective criminal investigation into the Panama Papers.

It is clear, as revelations in the forthcoming weeks are sure to demonstrate, that there was an active campaign inside the Office of the Prime Minister to shield all the national projects steered by Keith Schembri, as well as his personal business interests, from any form of police scrutiny.

Panama was book-ended by the existence of 17 Black, a Dubai firm owned by Yorgen Fenech, now charged as the mastermind in the Daphne Caruana Galizia assassination. This business relationship is the enduring legacy of the Schembri-Fenech friendship, and the harrowing events that it allegedly gave rise to.

Prime Minister Robert Abela has gone to some lengths in addressing a concern by the Venice Commission on the appointment of the police commissioner: the new system would be a public competition in which the two most suitable candidates would be short-listed by the Public Service Commission, a constitutionally-appointed body which is appointed by the President on advice of the Prime Minister “in consultation” with the Opposition leader. The Prime Minister will retain the prerogative to select one of the two candidates shortlisted, to be presented to the House.

Critics say the Prime Minister’s influence on the selection of the PSC appointees could be problematic, but Malta’s PSC has always been staffed by veteran civil servants who served under various Nationalist and Labour administrations. Would the additional scrutiny of the President of the Republic offer a better guarantee of constitutional impartiality?

Two academic points are pertinent at this stage. The first concerns the likelihood of politicised candidatures from high-ranking police officers who are perceived to be Labour or Nationalist sympathisers. It will be an unavoidable reality that the men and women gunning for the job will be labelled by virtue of their known political sympathies, or worse, because of their spousal or familial associations.

The second point concerns the approval of the candidate by the House of Representatives. A simple majority would rubber-stamp the Prime Minister’s choice; a two-thirds vote, as proposed in 2015 by the Nationalist Party, would require 46 MPs consenting.

But even here, the radical divide between the PL and the PN in the House would mean that any candidate chosen by the Prime Minister would not be approved under the two-thirds scenario.

Indeed, as proposed by the PN, two rounds of two-thirds vote – during which one assumes the Prime Minister would try to placate the Opposition to present a candidate who enjoys universal support – would be followed by a simple majority ‘decider’.

Such a process was therefore proposed with the spirit of introducing moral pressure; but again, it is impossible to exonerate the Maltese political party from ulterior motives: such a long-drawn out process, involving three rounds of voting, would be manipulated to turn the appointment of a commissioner of police into yet another cynical game of mudslinging, poisoning the trust the nation should have in the commissioner before their appointment.

The intermediate stage, in which the prospective candidate is grilled before the parliamentary committee for public appointments, should be an occasion in which Opposition MPs can put to the test the government’s choice, making full use of the televised broadcast and media interest in Malta’s first ‘parliamentary-elected’ commissioner of police.

The fact remains, however, that Malta’s public life should stop enduring excessive punishment because of the overweening influence of political parties, and their convenient scapegoating of anybody who does not share their political views or loyalties. It is time for MPs to show responsibility to their electors by truly assessing public appointments on an objective basis, and making that rigorous assessment count.

If Abela’s proposed system to appoint a new commissioner is imperfect (though it is a radical departure from the PM’s absolute prerogative that must be commended), let intelligent debate put forward a course of action, without the need to undermine the trust this public appointment requires.