The fact that government has been forced by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe to loosen its stranglehold on the Commissioner of Police appointment process is a positive democratic development. It is not as good as it could be, but it is definitely a welcome first step: there is however room for substantial improvement in the process.
In this context the Opposition’s decision to boycott the public hearing process is retrograde.
The Parliamentary Opposition, in any democratic jurisdiction worthy of being so described, is the champion of transparency and accountability. A Parliamentary Opposition demands more opportunities to scrutinise major appointments to public office. Boycotting the first substantial opportunity to scrutinise an appointee to the post of Commissioner of Police is not just a lost opportunity. It risks undermining the democratic requests for more public scrutiny of top appointments to public office.
The PN Parliamentary Opposition is arguing that the existence of the possibility for government to terminate the appointment of the new Police Commissioner within a one-year probationary period is unacceptable as it would keep the new appointee on a leash. The justified preoccupation of the Opposition is that the probationary period could be abused of. This is not unheard of. There is however a solution in seeking to subject the possible dismissal of the Police Commissioner at any stage to a Parliamentary decision as a result of which the Minister for the Interior would be required to set out the case for dismissal and the Police Commissioner himself would be afforded the right to defend himself. This would place any government in an awkward position as it would not seek dismissal unless there is a very valid justification for such a course of action. This would ensure, more than anything else, the integrity of the office of Commissioner of Police.
The Opposition has also sought to subject the appointment of the Commissioner of Police to a two-thirds parliamentary approval, indirectly seeking a veto on the appointment to be considered.
It would have been much better if the debate focused on the real decision taker in the whole matter: that is to say the Public Service Commission (PSC). Originally set up in the 1959 Constitution, the PSC has a role of advising the Prime Minister on appointments to public office and on the removal or disciplinary control of appointees to public office. Section 109 of the Constitution emphasises that when the PSC is appointed by the President of the Republic, he acts on the advice of the Prime Minister who would have consulted with the Leader of the Opposition.
Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are taken out of the equation in such matters? Parliament should seriously consider squeezing them both out of the process not just in the appointment of the PSC but in the case of the appointment of all Constitutional bodies. That is an instant where it would be justifiable in ensuring that all appointments are subject to a two thirds approval threshold in Parliament.
In boycotting the scrutinising process, the Opposition is doing a disservice to the country.
Since 2018 it has been possible for Parliament to scrutinise a number of public sector appointments. Perusal of the proceedings of the Parliamentary Public Appointments Committee indicates the very superficial manner in which consideration of appointments is dealt with. Serious objections raised on the non-suitability of candidates are ignored before the proposed appointment is generally rubber-stamped.
Unfortunately, Parliament is not capable of holding government to account. Having a retrograde Parliamentary Opposition certainly does not help in overturning a rubber-stamping practice!
Published in The Malta Independent – Sunday 14 June 2020