Government and Opposition at loggerheads over police chief law as Parliament debate kicks off

Government and Opposition fail to see eye to eye on which new method should be employed to appoint the police commissioner

Home Affairs minister Byron Camilleri and PN MP and shadow home affairs minister Beppe Fenech Adami have failed to see eye to eye in Parliament on the new method for appointing the police commissioner
Home Affairs minister Byron Camilleri and PN MP and shadow home affairs minister Beppe Fenech Adami have failed to see eye to eye in Parliament on the new method for appointing the police commissioner

The government and Opposition have failed to see eye to eye on the method for appointing the police commissioner, as the debate in Parliament on the matter kicked off.

The House started on Tuesday debating the government’s proposal for a new way to appoint the police chief, with Home Affairs minister Byron Camilleri saying that this would set the stage for more changes within the police force.

The government is proposing that the next police commissioner be chosen after a public call, with the appointment only being finalised after a grilling by MPs

The public call will be issued by the Public Service Commission, a constitutional body, and all those interested in the job can apply. The criteria for applying have yet to be determined. The Commission will then whittle down the candidates to two.

The prime minister will then choose one candidate of the two, but the chosen individual will then have to be scrutinised by Parliament’s Public Appointment Committee, which will be able to grill the candidate. The grilling will be televised.

On the other hand, the Opposition has proposed that the police chief should be appointed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority after being grilled by MPs.

Camilleri said the government’s proposed method satisfied the Venice Commission’s recommendations in this regard. He said that, following a video conference on the new method with the government, the Venice Commission had “recognised this is a very positive proposal and takes us in the right direction.”

The minister said the proposed method would “drastically reduce the involvement of politicians in the process” and would “avoid a possible situation of deadlock during which we wouldn’t have a police commissioner.” He said that, through the new method, the government was voluntarily relinquishing the prime minister’s power to appoint a police commissioner.

PN MP Beppe Fenech Adami, however, completely disputed that the proposal meant the prime minister was letting go of his power to appoint the police commissioner, stressing that the new method was based on a number of untruths.

The first concerned the claim that the prime minister’s power to veto a candidate was being removed, the home affairs shadow minister said. Fenech Adami said the proposed law would in fact be consolidating the right of the prime minister of the day to veto a prospective police chief, because, after the Public Service Commission chooses two candidates, the prime minister would then unilaterally decide which of them would be chosen to be brought forward to Parliament.

The second untruth, he said, was that the police commissioner would be chosen by an independent body. The government, he noted, had the power to appoint the majority of the members to the Public Service Commission, which had three government representatives and two from the Opposition.

The third untruth, Fenech Adami said, was that the appointment process was transparents. “How is it transparent?” he asked, “The proposed law does not allow the Maltese people to know on which basis the two candidates were chosen and we won’t know how the prime minister decided to choose one and not the other, because the process is not transparent as the law is. As the law is, the prime minister will unilaterally choose one of the two candidates shortlisted by the Public Service Commission.”

The fourth untruth, he said, was that the Opposition could block the government’s choice of commissioner. He highlighted that the Public Appointments Committee, like other parliamentary committees, had a majority of government members. “And with a simple majority, the government can approve a candidate. The Opposition has no power to stop this,” he said.

A final untruth, he said, was the government’s insistence that the Opposition two-thirds majority wouldn’t work. He said that the experience in Malta was that posts which required a two-thirds majority had worked well. He underlined that this method was already employed for the appointment of the Ombudsman and the Auditor General, both of whom enjoyed the faith of both government and Opposition. “This shows the two-thirds system works,” he said.

Fenech Adami also reminded that the current system for the appointment of the police commissioner had been in place for years, but that it had only become problematic under the post-2013 Labour government. “We had a system which used to work for many years. While the country had people in government who were serious, who weren’t irresponsible, and who didn’t close their eyes to abuse, the country managed to use the current system to choose police commissioner who enjoyed the support of the people and who were regarded and serious and didn’t have any shadows cast on them,” he said.

Since then, however, Labour were elected and this lead to the collapse of the police corps, starting from the dismissal of police chief John Rizzo “who enjoyed everybody’s respect and whose integrity was not question.” He also underscored that, in the past seven years, the Labour government has had four different home affairs ministers and six police commissioners.

This, he said, was the context within which the law to amend the method of appointing the police chief was being presented.

“There was a collapse… six commissioners in a row were appointed… you cannot trust [the government] anymore with the appointment of a police commissioner. I think six commissioner in six years is a world record. And this is the context within which this law is being presented today,” Fenech Adami said.

He said that what had emerged two months ago from the investigations into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder “had changed the political route of the country forever.”

“What happened between November and January means things will never be the same again. So the people are shouting so that when a police commissioner is appointed, the government and Opposition be in agreement. This country can no longer stand to have a police commissioner who doesn’t enjoy the people’s support,” he added.

Government should ask Venice Commission which proposal is the best

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