Stalemate as politicians debate political responsibility

Owen Bonnici and Jason Azzopardi clash over Sheehan shooting incident and Kamara inquiry report

Opinionist Michael Falzon on state of affairs in Police Force

Justice minister Owen Bonnici and shadow home affairs minister Jason Azzopardi could not reach a consensus as what should constitute political responsibility. Speaking on Monday night’s edition of Reporter that dealt with the sacking of home affairs minister Manuel Mallia following a shooting incident involving his ex-driver, Bonnici said that the Prime Minister has now raised the bar on accountability.  

“We’ve seen a lot of serious cases in the past, but this is the first time that a minister and a police commissioner [Ray Zammit] were made to resign at the same time,” Bonnici said.

However, he disagreed that Mallia should have resigned, even temporarily, before results of an independent inquiry into the incident had been published.

“The inquiry was crucial because it allowed the Prime Minister [Joseph Muscat] to have all the facts in front of him before making a decision,” Bonnici said. “Mallia deserved a chance to defend himself and this inquiry provided him with that chance.”

He also admitted that the police suffered a credibility knock following their response to the shooting incident and that the government needs to work to regain the people’s faith in the corp.

However, Azzopardi insisted that Muscat should have sacked Mallia before the inquiry was even launched and that he only sacked him when he was left with no other option.

“The situation had slipped out of his hands by then,” Azzopardi said. “On the night of the incident, the government had released a statement saying that Mallia’s driver had fired warning shots in the air when media reports and pictures clearly showed that his shots had hit a car’s window-screen. Despite probably knowing all of this, Muscat decided to go to sleep. The next morning, he had definitely known that the government statement was false and he should have taken action instantly.”

His beliefs were echoed by opinionist Frank Psaila.

“I disagree with Bonnici that the government has set a higher level of political accountability,” Psaila said. “Mallia’s position had become untenable from the moment it had been established that the government had issued an incorrect statement. Muscat sacked him three weeks too late.”

When asked whether home affairs ministers should be held politically accountable for shortcomings in the police force, Azzopardi pointed out that Mallia’s driver, someone Mallia had “a lot of faith in”, was involved in the shooting incident.

“A man who was arrested on rape charges managed to escape police custody today,” Azzopardi said. “Is it justified to ask for the home affairs minister’s resignation? No, because the case doesn’t impact his own merits.”

‘Will Mifsud Bonnici be held politically accountable for Kamara inquiry?’

Bonnici quickly turned the tables on the Opposition, questioning whether PN leader Simon Busuttil will take action against Nationalist MP and ex-home affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici. An inquiry report into the death of asylum seeker Mamadou Kamara in 2012, published by Muscat last week during a parliamentary debate on the Mallia incident, revealed that Mifsud Bonnici had prevented disciplinary proceedings against Detention Services officers involved in the death of an escaped asylum seeker, a year before the Kamara murder. The report also revealed that “the worst of the worst” soldiers were employed within the detention services and that a sergeant had sexually assaulted migrant women.  

“[Former detention services head] Colonel Gatt had wanted to sack officers for their disciplinary record and Mifsud Bonnici stopped him from doing so because he said that the police were still investigating the incident,” Bonnici said. “If it had been myself in Mifsud Bonnici’s shoes, the Opposition would be calling for my resignation.”

Azzopardi and Psaila chose instead to focus on the timing of the report’s publication, a report that was compiled in December 2012.

“Let’s assume that the previous government had withheld the report for three months,” Azzopardi said. “How much worse is the current government for having withheld it for 21 months?
“It was only published when it was so that the government could gain some political mileage.”

However, Azzopardi skirted a question aired by opinionist Ramona Frendo as to whether ex-ministers who are found to have interfered in disciplinary proceedings should be dis-allowed from contesting general elections. His response was that two police inquiries under the current government have not yet been published- one on the wrongful arrest and arraignment of Daryl Luke Borg over hold-up charges and another on the dropping of charges against a  man who had allegedly assaulted four policemen at the Zabbar police station.

“It’s important in a democratic country that a culture of political responsibility is kept alive,” Azzopardi said. “Busuttil’s leadership is based on honesty. Over a year ago, the Opposition presented a motion for a parliamentary-approved commissioner who will assess the standards of politicians. The government is still dragging its feet over it. The fruit of the pudding is in the eating and the Opposition is ready to walk the talk.”  

Blogger Josanne Cassar said that political responsibility remains very much a vague concept amongst Maltese politicians.

“We need to reach a point where politicians hold themselves politically accountable and resign of their own will,” she said, citing the recent resignation of a British Labour MP after she was accused of snobbery for tweeting a picture of a house draped with English flags.

“The people are fed up of Maltese politicians bickering over which party committed the most mistakes,” she said.

Live current affairs programme Reporter is presented by Saviour Balzan and produced by MediaToday. The programme also includes lawyer Ramona Frendo as a resident opinionist.

Reporter is aired live every Monday at 9.45pm on TVM 1