Let’s say the prime minister relents on how to choose the next police chief. He lets the critics – Opposition, academics, Council of Europe – get their way. The new police commissioner is chosen by a two-thirds vote of confidence in Parliament. He (or she) then gets security of tenure – unless two-thirds of Parliament vote him out. Then what?
Ah, say the critics. Then we will see the police build up its credibility again. How? Because the new commissioner will enjoy wide confidence in the country. Why? Because he will begin to investigate the people whose odour of corruption precedes them.
Really? What would stop a new commissioner from turning round and saying: I’ve looked at the files. I still don’t think they need investigation.
What would happen then? He’d have security of tenure. Any guarantees that two-thirds of Parliament would vote him out?
What could the critics say? He’d have been chosen according to a method they endorsed. He’d have been endorsed by the Opposition. His critics would be open to the reasonable accusation that they want to second-guess his professional judgement, and that they only accept conclusions that tally with theirs.
It’s true that the Opposition would not vote for a candidate that it did not trust, or who hadn’t given appropriate signals of wanting to clean up the police corps. But it wouldn’t be the first time that a candidate for police commissioner misled even shrewd politicians in the Nationalist Party.
As for the public, such a new commissioner might well outrage it. But no street protests will see him out. The new law, approved and endorsed by the Opposition and Council of Europe, will protect him.
Am I so sure that this scenario would come to pass? Of course not. But we’ve seen more sinister things happen recently.
What I am sure of is the unreasonableness, masquerading as political realism, behind implementing this method of choosing a new commissioner now. (Repeat: now.)
First, there has never been a time, more than now, when a new police commissioner needed to prove himself. If the new commissioner is chosen according to Robert Abela’s preferred method, the international pressure and watchfulness would not let up.
The entire raison d’être of democracy is to place the forces of coercion under democratic political control
If he does not investigate everyone suspected of criminality – Panama gang first – the pressure would increase, from the public as well as internationally. It wouldn’t just be his job on the line. So would Abela’s. Security of tenure, however, removes the pressure to prove himself.
Second, there is a fundamental illusion informing the idea that you can depoliticise the choice of police chief by putting it into the hands of parliamentarians. What could be more political than that?
Putting it into the hands of government and Opposition doesn’t depoliticise it. It simply changes the politics. And not necessarily for the better.
Consider how it would have backfired in a case we had a generation ago, when a commissioner reluctantly resigned after a much publicised sex scandal. He denied accusations of breaking the law. But to defend himself he painted a picture – of himself and his lover as moonstruck lovebirds – that made him a figure of fun. The loss of authority made his position untenable.
Under our current system, he could be pressured into resigning. But would two-thirds of Parliament ever vote such a commissioner out, even if it was obvious that he couldn’t command respect any more? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Some MPs would hesitate, given their own complicated private lives. Others would have no personal difficulty but still see that any decision to sack the chief would invite unwelcome scrutiny of politicians’ lives. Others would simply think it unbecoming for MPs to sermonise on the subject, even if it wasn’t really about private life but rather public image.
To be sceptical about the proposed rule is not to conjure ghosts. It doesn’t actually help resolve known cases.
Third, the proposed two-thirds rule depends on magical thinking. Of course, it poses as realist scepticism. The rule is proposed because we’re told prime ministers cannot be trusted to use their powers wisely, in the spirit of a mature democracy.
Fair enough. Point taken. Our last prime minister, Joseph Muscat, showed only contempt for the State.
Our current prime minister, Abela, has given mixed signals – and most are not reassuring.
But just because prime ministers cannot be trusted, what makes you think Parliament should be?
In years gone by, our Parliament couldn’t summon a two-thirds majority to sack a judge who didn’t turn up for work for seven years. It connived to find a way not to sack another judge recorded saying things a judge should never say.
Our current Parliament is made up of a government majority that can’t bring itself to expel Konrad Mizzi from its parliamentary group. In an earlier incarnation, it voted full confidence in him. It sees nothing wrong in MPs accepting jobs in the Executive. At the height of the political crisis last year, it expressed full confidence in Muscat, already disgraced in the public eye.
The entire problem is that we’re trying to find a fool-proof system, free of politics. This is magical thinking. The entire raison d’être of democracy is to place the forces of coercion under democratic political control.
Of course, you need to have politicians you can trust to behave well. So let’s put the pressure there, not tinker with the rules and risk some dreadful unintended consequences.
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