The shooting involving Manuel Mallia’s driver has become toxic and is now threatening the Prime Minister himself but Joseph Muscat insists he will decide the minister’s fate only after the inquiry has established the facts.
Two years ago, you had accused Lawrence Gonzi of being a wait-and-see Prime Minister because he would not call a vote of confidence to test his parliamentary majority. Have you become a wait-and-see Prime Minister yourself now?
What a difference. My predecessor spent five years postponing votes in Parliament because he did not have a majority. With this shooting incident, I gave 15 days for the facts to be established. I don’t think that is wait and see. If you look at this country’s history, I think this inquiry would have been completed in record time. And it will be made public and decisions will be taken.
Political responsibility means that you are accountable not only in situations where you are personally culpable but also when there is an issue further down the line that involves someone who falls under your responsibility, for instance.
There are two schools of thought: one which says that Manuel Mallia had to leave immediately, before the facts are established. Then, when they are, he can be reinstated or his resignation confirmed. Then there is a second school of thought, that I am adopting, which is to call an inquiry that is given a defined time frame of two weeks. After that, we will take the decisions and if political responsibility needs to be assumed, it will be.
There is another school of thought which says that irrespective of whether Manuel Mallia is involved in a cover-up, he should step down to assume responsibility for what happened.
I don’t think you can say whether one should or should not assume responsibility before establishing the facts.
What about Charles Mangion?
There was an inquiry. So far as I recall, he offered to resign before the inquiry was carried out but it was carried out over the span of five days and his resignation was accepted after the investigation was concluded.
And the inquiry had established that Charles Mangion had no personal blame in the whole matter.
Yes, but he had political responsibility to bear.
But the facts had been established. And that is what we are doing now. If you had spoken to me on the night of the incident, I had a certain view of the incident as a result of the information I’d received. In the days that followed it was clear that the reality was different. So I am the first one who wants to see that the facts are established in an independent way.
What happens if the minister is not found guilty of a cover-up?
Two wrongs don’t make a right but I want to make this point: in all of the cases in the previous administration, starting with Tonio Fenech and ending with Austin Gatt, nothing used to happen. We are saying a decision will be taken, following a defined time frame. We even gave the Opposition leader the opportunity to appoint a chairman to lead this inquiry. He didn’t and on top of this, he is attacking the former members of the judiciary who form part of this inquiry. These three people were called to the Bench by Nationalist governments.
I think highly of Manuel Mallia. I like the way he puts forward arguments, the way he analyses problems
What happens if the minister is not found guilty of a cover up? He carries on as if nothing happened?
What if they find that he is?
What if they find he is not?
Just a few days away from the publication of the inquiry report it would be premature for me to look at various permutations. I am saying that whatever they decide, I will take it as a statement of fact. The Leader of the Opposition is saying this is a cover-up.
The point is that you could make an assessment on the basis of what we already know. This happens to be a minister who has seen a series of allegations that all have a similar footprint… allegations of arrogance, abuse of power and a bully mentality. It was an accident waiting to happen, and it happened.
If one had to take action against a bully mentality, Austin Gatt would not have started in politics.
But where does that leave us? People voted for something different?
And they are getting something that is completely different from what there was before because at the end of the day there is responsibility, there are decisions that are being taken and promises being kept, on the reduction of water and electricity bills, for instance, or the performance of the economy.
But you are talking as though people only care about their pockets. I am talking of good governance. The fact that the government performs at an economic level is not enough for many.
I agree and what better example of good governance than to establish the facts, through independent people, in a limited time frame… This is not like the inquiry that had been carried out into the death of a migrant at the hands of detention service officials in 2012, for instance… the inquiry was completed but never published. I’m sure the minister responsible never told these people to beat up the migrant but what you are saying is that the person responsible for that ministry back then should resign if he is still in Parliament today.
The difference between the two cases is that here we are talking about someone who works in Manuel Mallia’s ministry…
But the inquiry was never published.
I am talking about a case that involves the ministry…
Yes and I am telling you of a case where a person died. I am telling you that the way things are done are totally different. Before there weren’t inquiries, now we’re doing them.
Of course inquiries were carried out.
When they were done, they weren’t published, and they were forgotten. We have an inquiry with a definite time frame that will be public. Then we’ll take the decisions.
Manuel Mallia is responsible for sensitive areas…. the security service, the police and the army. If his judgment cannot be trusted when choosing a driver, how can he be trusted to make sure he has the best people running these agencies?
Let’s establish the facts. Once these have been established, I will take the political decisions.
Some facts have already been established…
I am waiting for all the facts to be established.
Paul Sheehan had a conviction for insubordination, his training in handling a weapon responsibly does not appear to be a shining example… those are the facts.
I am waiting for all the facts.
This is someone chosen by the minister.
I am waiting for all the facts. I am not saying we will discard these issues as if nothing happened. I am taking these things you are talking about seriously as well as other things that still need to be established. When I have all the facts, I will take the necessary decisions. I have never feared taking decisions. I took decisions in difficult situations and that is what I will continue doing…
People are making comparisons with those decisions. Decisions like Anġlu Farrugia’s speedy removal before the general election, for instance.
I will take the decisions when I have all the facts in hand. When I have all the facts, I will take that decision.
Do you believe the minister’s claim that he did not know his driver, and that he was assigned to him?
I will not go into which is the correct version. I’m hearing about so many versions.
This is what he is saying, and you can measure it against your personal experience. In political office, the driver is one of the people you need to trust most, possible second only to the private secretary…
Look, the minister is saying that the driver was assigned to him. You (Times of Malta) are saying that he knew him before that. I will wait for the results of the inquiry. I don’t know this person (Paul Sheehan), I don’t know all the circumstances. At this moment, I would prefer it if the three people whom I entrusted with establishing the facts are allowed to do so…
Let’s talk about the minister’s tone. The morning after the incident Manuel Mallia described the incident as unfortunate, and spent some time saying what a good man Paul Sheehan is. Then in the afternoon came your statement, in which you said you were disgusted by the incident, and the minister toed the line. When you two spoke, was he instantly disgusted, because he did not appear to be in the morning?
I will tell you what I was. I was presented a picture at the beginning which is in line with what there was in the statement released to the press on the night of the incident…
Almost a heroic act…
Yes... What made me question this information was the fact that I had been told the car had been smashed, when it then became clear that the car only had a smashed mirror.
Who told you this?
That is what I was told.
The inquiry will establish that, not me.
There’s nothing to establish, you know who told you this.
I would like to let the inquiry establish these facts, but I’m using this fact as an example because it started indicating to me that something was not right. My mistake was that I didn’t call an independent inquiry earlier to establish the facts earlier.
In fact, many criticised you for taking too long to react and to act.
I have no problem saying where I could have acted better and that is with the inquiry. I feel I should have called the independent inquiry earlier… When confronted with all these different versions, I say to myself thank God we set up this inquiry, especially when you hear about the involvement of police officers. I don’t know what more there is, honestly...
Let’s return to the question of tone. This week, there was an activity in which Manuel Mallia was given a triumphal welcome. Don’t you feel that this jars with your message of disgust?
It’s not my style but I understand the people who do that because they feel that the person who they trust…
I am talking about the minister. Don’t you think he was wrong to put himself in that situation?
I would have avoided it but that’s not the point. There was a public meeting.
It was obvious that it was orchestrated...
If it was obvious that it was orchestrated, whoever orchestrated it in my view did the minister a disservice.
And the minister had nothing to do with this?
He had something to do with it in the sense that he didn’t think this through well enough because it has done him a disservice.
You are constantly referring back to the inquiry but I can sense that there is now a huge trust issue. Even if all falls into place, how can things return to normal? Do you have the same level of trust you had in Manuel Mallia, for instance?
Those are decisions I will take when I have all the facts in hand.
But what is your gut feeling telling you? Do you have the same trust in Manuel Mallia?
I think highly of Manuel Mallia. I like the way he puts forward arguments, the way he analyses problems. But in all of this, I cannot rely on friendship or on admiration; I have to rely on facts. And I am waiting for these facts to be established by the board of inquiry. The facts may please people or they may not as will my decisions – but I will make a decision based on the facts.
Do you have faith in the Police Commissioner?
God forbid the Prime Minister should start undermining trust in the country’s institutions. That said, there is clearly something wrong with the police, but this goes beyond simply the person at the top… Maybe it’s an issue of culture... Maybe it’s a case of people covering for each other in the police force. Maybe it’s too much familiarity with criminality. My concern is with how widespread the problem is and what is causing it. There is no doubt that there is need for a total shake-up in the police force.
What do you have in mind?
Without casting any doubt on individuals… some of whom go out of their way and face huge risks to do their job … when I compare the police force with the army or other institutions it is clear that the police force has gone for a number of years without proper investment, particularly in human resources and I’m not going to blame previous governments now I am in government, my party is in government, we are governing… There needs to be a tremendous shake-up, in my view.
What are you talking about specifically?
One of the very first things we need to do, which we had already announced in reality, is to separate the administrative side of the police from the rest of the force and to put in place a CEO who will take care of it. The people responsible for the police force have always told me that they waste too much time on administrative issues. We have to be careful not to create a two-headed body… but the idea is to have a CEO who is responsible for the administrative side of the police force and who reports to the Police Commissioner.
Look, I am not trying to exonerate anyone, but it’s too easy to pin the situation on one person
The problems laid bare by this case, some of which have been present for years, are to do with the moral fibre of the police force and not administrative issues… allegations of officers tampering with evidence.
Yes, and I think this comes after years and years of cosiness and laissez-faire attitude. I think we need to attract more talent to the police force. It is clear that there needs to be more investment in the police… This incident has been a huge slap in the face for the police force not only in relation to its image but also to the public’s trust. I will say nothing that will undermine the country’s institutions but I understand people’s sentiment because I feel it myself. What happened over the years and now with this incident drastically reduced the faith that the man in the street has in the fact that the police will protect ordinary citizens, and this counts for me too.
To return to Manuel Mallia, isn’t this another good reason for him to shoulder political responsibility?
I don’t think these problems developed in the last 18 months. You said yourself that these problems were there and that now they have been laid bare. Therefore, I don’t think the blame should be placed on one person.
But it’s clear that in the past 20 months there hasn’t been any leap forward. We had a false start with a Commissioner who was replaced after little more than a year. And while all this is happening, you get an incident like this that involves the ministry’s own secretariat.
The police force is not another government department, so there is a specific issue there. I for one believe that the politician should not interfere, so when it comes to political responsibility, I don’t think that you can place it on the minister’s shoulders.
But politicians have a duty to intervene on management issues and appointments.
In the choices of appointees, yes… Look, I am not trying to exonerate anyone but what I’m saying that it’s too easy to pin the situation in the police force on one person.
This interview was conducted before the latest revelations by the Nationalist Party.