The Malta Independent 15 December 2017, Friday

Why is Minister Abela being asked to resign?

Simon Mercieca Monday, 4 December 2017, 07:51 Last update: about 11 days ago

It was not my intention to write another blog about the Malta Police Force, but the recent ministerial press release wherein Minister Carmelo Abela “strongly” denied ministerial interference when he was Minister of Police, confirms rather than disproves the veracity of such interference during Abela’s tenure. This Minister’s statement was issued as a reaction to what Jonathan Ferris stated that when still in the Police Force, he had received an email which, according to him, was tantamount to political interference.

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The former Minister for Home Affairs, Carmelo Abela has denied interfering in the work of Jonathan Ferris, when the latter was inspector in the Police Force.  However, he did clarify that as a result of having received a complaint about Ferris, he had instructed his secretary to email Inspector Ferris  asking  what progress had been made concerning a fraud case he was meant to be investigating. 

The Minister has admitted to having used the wrong procedure. In fact, the normal communication procedure is for the Secretariat of the Ministry to communicate with the office of the Police Commissioner and not between the Minister’s personal secretary and an Inspector of Police.

Frankly I don’t believe that this was a case of ‘lapsus’ on the part of the Minister who simply needed a reply to a simple question. Using a secretary is nothing new. It is a known fact that ministers, during different administrations, in particular after 1971, used to phone police inspectors for various reasons. Guido De Marco himself, when he was minister of police used to phone personally to inspectors to demand explanations. I am mentioning this particular case to explain why this was politically not right. I am not implying here that de Marco was seeking favours. But by phoning inspectors personally, the minister built unnecessary confidentiality with police officers and this proved disastrous for the minister himself.

I agree with the editorial of the Malta Independent that we should not keep on harping on procedure even if this can serve as an eye opener to government to stick to procedures.  The simplest straight forward issue will have to go through all the bureaucratic stages with the result that things never get seen to.

When a minister directly communicates with members of the police force and in the process he circumvents the police commissioner, the minister would be stating that either he or she has no faith in the commissioner or that the commissioner is a weak person. Normally, this happens because the police commissioner is weak and accepts to be circumvented by his own minister. A strong commissioner of Police would not permit such type of interference. This does not only hold for the police but for any other department. Communications about issues within government departments are normally dealt by the Permanent Secretaries who speak to the respective General Director about any complaint against members of their respective staff. Therefore, this behaviour confirms the unwarranted familiarity. If a complaint is lodged with a minister about any police officer, it is the duty of Government to question the work of the officer but the Minister cannot start unilateral investigations. Did Abela in this case start a unilateral investigation? I doubt it. 

One needs to mention that within the Police structures, there is a disciplinary board to deal with complaints of this type. One can question its effectiveness but this is another question. Therefore, the correct procedure in this case should have been for the minister to forward the complaint to the police commissioner and ask him to investigate.

In other countries faced with such a formal admittance, the Minister would have tendered his resignation to Parliament. In fact the Opposition immediately seized the opportunity to ask for Abela’s  resignation. But, regrettably, the Opposition has been asking for far too many resignations in these past weeks.

In various cases, individuals were accused of wrongdoing without having yet been proven guilty. The attack on the current police commissioner is a case in point. One could say that he is naïve, but there has been no proof of any wrongdoing.  The behavior of the Opposition in the case of the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia is even more serious. It should have left the police to carry on with its investigations and avoided having members tabling unnecessary questions in parliament. 

In the long run, the parliamentary questions concerning this investigation are not in the interest of the general public at this stage and can only end up harming the Opposition rather than Government.

In the case of Minister Abela and his admitted ‘interference’, perhaps, one can state that he is exonerated of his political responsibility because this case happened during the past legislature and he has since been re-elected. However, if this Government wants to be credible when he asks for the Opposition to carry its own political responsibility for its past wrong doings, it should also start with its own ministers.

My fear is that the seriousness of this case is going to be obfuscated thanks to the perverse approach that has been taken by the Opposition in recent times. Perversity is now the order of the day as far as the PN is concerned. The impression that the Opposition is giving is of one that believes itself to be a Valkyrie and is behaving as such, which is a great tragedy.

This is why Government can ride roughshod over the Opposition and the country. It is not an issue of votes or members in parliament. It is an issue of credibility and Labour is more credible than the PN in the eyes of the electorate. The general impression is that all the PN wants to do is to constantly, not just put spokes in the wheel, but to destabilize the country at any cost. This is why exponents of the PN should also be cautious when speaking to the foreign press.

In focusing on these petty stories, the Opposition is ignoring a bigger reality revolving around political strategy, in particular the current covert tension within Labour.  Unfortunately, the opposition is not capable of capitalizing on it, nor of bringing it to the fore. Both  Edward Zammit Lewis and Anton Refalo are putting pressure on the Prime Minister to reappoint them into cabinet. I hope that the Opposition is not ending up doing the Government’s dirty work as the story of Abela can give the opportunity to Muscat to effect a mini-reshuffle to stifle internal pressure, which till now has been hidden from the media.  If Zammit Lewis and Refalo were to be appointed again to cabinet, the question would be who is going to be left out?  Such a story does not augur well for Abela. 

I don’t think that Muscat can add more to his cabinet as it is going to become ridiculous with more ministers than backbenchers. Thus, who will be those cabinet members who would have to make space so that Zammit Lewis and Refalo return to cabinet?

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