The long road ahead | Carmelo Abela

Carmelo Abela has inherited not only the Home Affairs and National Security Ministry, but political responsibility for the country’s most strategic and sensitive issues. Will it be a Happy New Year for the Labour MP from Zejtun?

Carmelo Abela must have been very good all year round. This Christmas, he got a bonanza of unexpected presents in his stocking: not least, the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security, which includes political responsibility for the Police Force, the Civil Protection Department, the Armed Forces, immigration, Detention Services, the Corradino Correctional Facility… the least of which would be considered a headache, to put it mildly, for any one minister to handle.

At the risk of putting him off the New Year, my first question for him when we meet for this interview is whether he thinks he might have bitten off more than he can chew. Does he think all these sectors might be a bit too much on his plate? 

“I’m tempted to say ‘ask the Prime Minister…’,” he begins with a laugh.

Looking on the bright side, he reminds me that the ministry was actually downsized by the time he took it over two weeks ago: with public broadcasting now nestling within the justice portfolio.

“So you could say that I have a headache and a half. But whether it is enough or too much for any one minister… I myself don’t see it as a job for one minister anyway. I think we should work together. Let’s take advantage of the fact that we are all under the same umbrella. After all we have the same goals…”

Who does he mean by ‘we’, exactly?

“I mean all entities involved in the different sectors: other ministries, institutions, NGOs, etc. I like to speak in the plural rather than singular: it conveys the message that we should really be interested in the nation as a whole, not just what I or any one minister is doing…” 

There is a certain culture, he goes on, which tends to place emphasis on the individual rather than the issue.  

“We see this in all spheres: even band clubs and such like. We tend to work on our own, rather than together. I think we should change this mentality...”

In fact, ‘changing mentalities’ is very much part of his new job as the minister responsible for the police. By now everyone will be familiar with the unusual circumstances which landed Abela this ministry in the first place: the incident which resulted in the loss of the previous minister had wholly revolved precisely around attitudes and practices prevalent in the police force. It was suspicion of a police cover-up in the Sheehan shooting incident that sparked the inquiry, and an ultimately damning report assigning political responsibility to Mallia. 

This in turn evokes images of another widespread local culture: omertà, and a tendency among the police to close ranks when one of their own is ‘under fire’. Strangely, in a country which has been talking about the need for judicial reform for the past two years, there has been no corresponding drive to reform the administrative structures of the Police Force… so much so, that the inquiry report alluded to ‘negligence’ and the lack of proper internal operations and communications structures, as causes of the mishap. 

As newly appointed minister, how does Abela intend to address shortcomings?

“If you’ll allow me, let me correct your initial statement. We have not been talking about institutional changes for the past two years. We have been talking about changes for a lot longer than that.  The difference is that since March 2013 we have been acting on many of these issues. The issue now is that, together with a process of judicial reform, we must also embark on reforms within the police force. Not only how they operate, but also in terms of having up-to-date equipment.

That is needed. It’s something that is missing. For example, how investigations are currently being done. The police need better equipment to conduct their investigations in a faster and more modern way. That’s why we need to combine the judicial reform amendments in our legislation, with investment in the police force. But at least with this government, we are not only discussing change, but actually achieving it. This is in sharp contrast with the previous administration, I must say…”

Perhaps, but some of the changes have so far been controversial. One example was the recent change to the contractual obligations for the upper ranks of the Force. A MOU signed by Mallia changed all such contracts from permanent to three-year renewable contracts based on performance. This has been strongly resisted by the Malta Police Association, on the ground that the new obligations place high-ranking officers under the direct control of the government. 

Abela acknowledges that this is controversial, but defends the arrangement.

“If we take the civil service as a whole, this already exists. It’s not something new that we invented for the police. It was merely extended to the top brass of the police force, from assistant commissioners upwards….”

But doesn’t the MPA have a point that this impinges on police autonomy?

“The principle is that it already exists in the civil service. So perhaps it’s the way we are doing it that has to be clarified, rather than the concept itself. Recently I had informal discussions with a person representing the police association, because I want to learn about their concerns, and I also want to learn the views of those who pushed this three-year performance contract. I’m trying to get a grasp of both sides. I’m not taking any sides at this moment. But I don’t think this is a question of trying to have the top brass in the hands of the minister. It’s more a question of being accountable to one’s responsibilities. We owe this to the people, not to the minister. One should have the best people to perform their duties for the country and for the people…”

At the same time, while some civil service work practices are being imposed on the police, others that they themselves are asking for have been denied…

“Likewise, issues and conditions that apply to the police do not apply apply to the civil service: the 25-year pension, for instance. You always have these kinds of exceptions…”

But that only raises the MPA’s other complaint: the work and responsibility of a police officer are not the same as those of a civil servant. The hours they work is one example. An off-duty policeman is still obliged to intervene if his assistance is required, and the extra time is not contractually covered. That certainly doesn’t apply to the civil service. So is it fair to judge the two entities by the same yardstick?

Abela however argues that it is too early to determine how this issue will be resolved.

“I’m taking stock of the situation. My intention is to arrive at a solution, let’s hope, in a couple of weeks’ time. I don’t think the situation should drag any longer than that. Hopefully in a couple of weeks we’ll arrive at a solution that suits both sides. I prefer not to say any more at this stage.”

Moving back to the revelations of the Sheehan inquiry… does Abela have any plans to address the culture of omertà? Not just individual disciplinary measures for individual officers… but a systemic overhaul to address the shortcomings identified in the report?

“I’m glad you mentioned the word ‘culture’, but culture doesn’t mean it started in March 2013. Culture goes far beyond that time. What did the Opposition do about these issues over the last 25 years?”

But it is his government’s responsibility now. 

He smiles. “Bear with me, I’m a politician, I have to mention the Opposition… but coming to your question. Let’s be clear: we have a problem. I want to call a spade a spade. We ended up like this because problems exist. No there’s no point in trying to hide it. That’s why it must be a collective effort to get us out of this situation. But I’m a positive person. I’m optimistic in life. So if we work together on this… for example, I very much believe in training. Not just physical training, but all aspects of training. We need to have new recruits in the police force: people who are young, and ambitious to serve the country. Being a policeman is not just about having a job. I’m not saying it should be a vocation: that would be stretching it a little too far. But it can’t be looked at as any old job…” 

And yet this is territory we have been over before. Another inquiry report into the fatal shooting of Bastjan Borg in 2005 had already identified insufficient firearm training as a problem within the police… 

“Maybe it’s part of the Maltese culture, that we try to take action only after things happen. This doesn’t apply just to the police. We have to learn to be more proactive. But I’ve just had a meeting this morning about how we should approach the issue of what might happen in future. Even disasters, for instance… civil protection is also part of my portfolio. We are discussing what structures need to be put into place to handle large-scale emergencies, and other events that may arise. The bottom line is: we need to improve. If you look at a parliamentary question I answered just before Christmas recess: yes, we need to improve training on use of firearms. And hopefully we will improve on this as well…”

Meanwhile it’s not just the police who have been the subject of judicial or magisterial indictments. Recently, Abela’s government published the findings of an inquiry by retired judge Geoffrey Valenzia into the death of a detainee at Hal Safi in 2011.

 Apart from its conclusions regarding the death of Mamadou Kamara, the report also uncovered systemic problems within detention. No need to go over all of them here; suffice it to say there was evidence of serial abuse of vulnerable detainees by DS personnel described as ‘the worst of the worst’.

Yet the government only published this report late last month, and only after the resignation of Minister Manuel Mallia. Prior to that, the report had been kept hidden since December 2012. The inevitable impression was that the government only published the report when it could serve a political purpose, which in this case was to hit back at the Opposition over another issue. If the Sheehan incident hadn’t happened, the chances are we would never have seen this report at all. 

How would Abela respond to the charge that his government only uses the apparatus of the state if and when it suits the Labour Party’s purpose?

“I don’t agree with your statement…” he begins.

Naturally, I didn’t expect him to…

“My question would be, why did the previous government not make the report public? It had it before we did…”

But the present government also sat on it for two years. The Gonzi administration only had five months to make it public, and there was an election in between… and in any case, I’m interviewing today’s home affairs minister, not the one from 2012…

“OK, let’s take the famous case leading to Mallia’s resignation. When the Prime Minister received the report from the three judges, he published it that same day. He didn’t hide the report…

Yes, but that’s the whole point. He behaved very differently with the Valenzia inquiry report… 

“But when the report came to our knowledge, we said we need to publish ALL reports; and we are doing that… even with those we might not be comfortable with…”

Making comparisons once more, Abela reminds me that not even the recommendations of the Valenzia report had been published under the Nationalists. “Just imagine how much action they took implementing them…”

Yet the Opposition argues that they had, in fact, started implementing those recommendations; then Labour came in and halted the reform… speaking of which, what is the state of play now? Are the recommendations being implemented today?

“I prefer to speak on the way forward. I know this issue is controversial, and people have different views. NGOs have their own views; the media have their own views. It’s a delicate issue, and it is not going to go away. It’s been going on for years now. I don’t think it’s going to end. That’s why we need a holistic policy on immigration. My ministry will take a lead role in that, but it involves other ministries also. A practical example: integration does not fall under this ministry, yet it is part and parcel of the migration issue. What we are working on is to have one comprehensive policy, within which each ministry will have its own responsibilities… 

This work, he adds, has already begun.

“Within a week of my appointment, I met with NGOs: I wanted to convey the message that we should not look at each other as adversaries, but as partners. We might not agree on everything. But the intentions are good, and we should work together. In fact towards the end of January we will meet again and discuss a specific agenda – their agenda – on how to proceed. I don’t want to give any target dates for the publication of the holistic migration policy; but we are already working on this in this ministry, and hopefully soon we’ll have more people contributing to the discussion. But we started internally, and will continue discussing in the coming days. Of course, not everyone is going to be happy with the policy… but we will do what we think is right.”

Meanwhile there seem to be mixed messages coming out of the Labour government on the subject of immigration. A year ago, Muscat was talking about a push-back policy. Now, he seems to be telling us: look in what a terrible state the PN left detention centres. Look at the hardship suffered by immigrants. These two messages seem to contradict each other… 

“I have to say that we need to take everything in the context it was said, and the specific time it was said. At the time, we were struggling with the EU to have the issue of illegal immigration on the EU’s agenda. Unfortunately, it seems we have to make strong statements to make our voice heard. And that was the intention of the PM…”

Isn’t that a little dangerous, when you consider that there is already a lot of ill-feeling towards migrants in Malta? But Abela is now warming to his point: “We also had thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean. And even this was not enough for the EU to finally make a strong commitment, and to say that migration is not an issue for Malta or Greece to tackle on their own; it’s an issue for the whole of Europe, to be tackled collectively. We even had the Pope visiting Lampedusa…

“But what happened? We spent some time discussing the issue, and then we were back to square one. This was the context when the Prime Minister mentioned push-backs. But I must add that throughout this time, our armed forces continued to save lives at sea. We always met our international obligations to the full. As a country we spend a lot of resources on saving lives at sea, and we don’t mind spending those resources because, as human beings, I feel we are obliged to do so.” 

Still, the message conveyed by the government in words at the time gave a very different impression…

“We felt we had to send a strong message to those who were… let’s say that while they were expecting a lot from us, they were not doing their own bit at European level. And I think we still have a long way to go to get that message across…”