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The most powerful minister of all?

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia is entrusted with all aspects of national security in the largest ministry of the incoming Government. He tells Christian Peregin his work as a criminal lawyer should not create problems.

You used to be a Nationalist. Why did you join Labour?

I want balance: a fair national TV station which one can enjoy viewing without feeling it is manifestly one-sided

I was active in PN committees between 1971 and 1977. After Eddie Fenech Adami beat Guido de Marco in the leadership race, I moved out of active politics...

But you remained a Nationalist.

Yes. I kept voting PN and also for EU membership. Then I got to know (Prime Minister) Joseph Muscat and he told me about his idea of a movement which looks for the right minds without asking people about their past. At the same time, I had stopped identifying myself with some principles being manifested in the PN.

Which ones?

In the past we fought against arrogance. We fought for rights and for a Government that is close to the people. I started seeing the same people I had worked with at the time becoming arrogant, distancing themselves from the people and no longer upholding our principles.

As a member of Labour’s “movement”, were you expecting a place in Cabinet?

No. I love being a lawyer...

Judging by the exposure you were given, the party showed it wanted you in Government. Did you not prepare yourself for that eventuality?

Let me answer your first question. Was I expecting it? No. In these things, you don’t even expect to get elected. My profession gave me a lot of satisfaction and, modestly, a reputation. I didn’t get into politics for this reason... I wanted to contribute to this movement so I was not thinking about ministries and I was not promised anything...

But if you had a choice, would you have chosen the Home Affairs Ministry? Is it true you were keener on the Transport Ministry?

In this country you hear many things that are totally untrue. In reality, if the Transport Ministry was suggested to me I would not have accepted it because in my profession I had many links with car importers. I’m involved in the rent-a-car association and I don’t think it would be right for me to become Minister of Transport because there would have been an element of conflict.

What are the priorities for your large ministry?

Good sense demands that the first thing I do is take stock of the situation in the various areas that fall under my responsibility: the police, army, security services, Public Broadcasting Services, the correctional facilities of Corradino and the central visa unit. I held meetings where I took the time to understand the different situations and lay out the policies that our Government wants to recommend in these areas.

If you had to describe your vision in one word, what would it be?

You cannot give one word for all these areas. But, for example, with the police I want to build a system of modern management. I don’t want a police force but a police service, where the police officer is a friend of the citizen. Instead of having many police stations all over Malta we might need to have bigger, regional stations with more police available even on the roads. When it comes to the security services, we need restructuring. When it comes to the correctional facilities, I already told officials that we need more education and rehabilitation.

Joseph Muscat criticised former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s administration for having huge ministries which could not be effectively managed. He has made you responsible for all these areas: defence, army, immigration, CPD, police, courts, PBS. How can you cope?

To start with, there is a parliamentary secretary responsible for the operations of courts and justice.

Ultimately, it falls under your ministry.

Owen Bonnici will be leading this area under the same ministry, yes.

It is interesting that for the first time the army, police and security services fall under the same ministry so they can start to be viewed in a holistic manner, with more synergy.

Usually in democratic countries, the army and the police are kept separate. You describe it as synergy, but aren’t you reducing the checks and balances between the two forces?

I don’t agree. The two forces have different aims, true, but they should work closer together. Today there might not be the desired relationship between the Brigadier and the Police Commissioner but the army can help the police when it comes to international organised crime, for instance, by providing sea and air support. And the security services could provide information.

But bringing all these areas in one ministry has never happened before. They have always been kept separate, even in most countries abroad.

Change is not always accepted but I am trying to explain that in this case we will achieve better results. I don’t think we should just stick to tradition.

No, but shouldn’t people be worried that all the power of our forces is concentrated in your hands? In a way, you’re more powerful than the Prime Minister. If you wanted to, you could carry out a coup d’état.

So far I am not yet demented and I don’t think I should be thinking of a coup d’état. We’re not in Africa. So let’s take this subject seriously. The success of a minister and his ministry does not lie just with the minister or his staff but all the members of the army, police, security services, prison etc. We must focus on giving these organisations modern management and if we each give our day’s work, we can flourish.

Irregular immigration is one of the areas in which this synergy will be applied. But why should immigration be treated as a security issue? Couldn’t we have a civilian department taking care of the matter instead of uniformed forces?

On immigration, this Government is drawing up a plan and it will be looking at this very suggestion.

So immigration could become a civilian issue?

I’m not saying yes or no. I don’t want to hide anything but I don’t think it is right for me to reveal certain plans that are still being drawn up.

The areas that fall under your responsibility are very sensitive. You could easily find yourself faced with day-to-day scandals and difficulties. How can you cope with other things like prison reform? Will there be the time?

The key is to help the people responsible. I already told prison officials about meritocracy and the need to have the right people in the right posts. If there is an official responsible for security and one responsible for social support, and they are given the backup they need, the minister does not have to interfere unless problems arise.

One of the issues I highlighted was drugs in prison. To me this is unacceptable and we need to find a way to make sure the place is clean, for the sake of the prisoners. They need help, not a racket. We need to find a solution.

You mentioned you want “the right people for the right posts”. Labour was elected on the slogan ‘Malta for All’. We are now seeing a number of semi-forced resignations while people who were active in the Labour Party are being given appointments. Do you plan on also changing the people holding the posts of Police Commissioner, the head of the Security Service and Commander of the Armed Forces of Malta?

For the moment, as I said, I am taking stock of all the situations. Then I think I will be making certain recommendations and reports to the Cabinet...

So, you don’t rule it out.

One does not rule it out but it will not necessarily be the case.

Labour criticised the previous Government for linking justice and home affairs under one ministry because of various conflicts that this can create. Don’t you think you are going to find yourself facing these same issues?

No, not at all. In our case you don’t have one person managing both areas, but two. You have Owen Bonnici responsible for the operations of justice and the courts. In some aspects he would consult me because of my political responsibility. But anyway, I think my 38 years court experience means I can give him good advice if he consults me.

One example mentioned during the debate against former minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici was whether lawyers should be present during police questioning. Where will your bias be on an issue like that?

This is not an issue of bias but doing what you feel is needed for the administration of justice. You must forget you are a lawyer. You are a politician elected by the people to do your best for the administration of justice, according to your conscience.

But should a lawyer be present during police questioning?

There should be access to a lawyer based on the British model and during the interrogation there would also be video and audio. In the UK you have the Police and Criminal Evidence Act which is vast. You can have a lawyer present, or else have a system of cameras, even in the cells at police headquarters, and other sensitive areas.

Previously, you said you might have had a conflict of interest regarding transport had you been given that ministry. But as a criminal lawyer of your calibre, don’t you think you may have conflicts in this area too? How will people perceive this?

Not at all. I am not the first defence lawyer to be appointed minister. Before me there was Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, Guido de Marco and Joe Fenech.

The perception should be this: if I were a lawyer in a case that was decided, the case is closed. If I were a lawyer in a case that is pending, I no longer have anything to do with the case. I am no longer practising so there is no involvement. The administration of justice will continue and a new lawyer will look after that case.

Let me give you an example. During the electoral campaign it emerged that you were the lawyer of the Farrugia family of oil traders. We got to know some time ago that they are being investigated by the police. Now, if the police decide not to proceed against them, won’t you look bad?

I don’t think the perception is that I will tell police not to take steps against that person because he was my client. That is absurd

If the police decide they should not proceed, it means that was their belief. No one will interfere. What does the minister have to do with it? If we think like this, no one can be a minister whether you are an architect, a doctor, a professional, a journalist... The point here is integrity and credibility. I don’t think the perception out there is that I, with my track record of 38 years, will tell the police not to take steps against that person because he was my client. That is absurd.

You have the power to order phone tapping.

No, I can order no such thing.

Can’t you approve phone tapping?

If the Security Service has founded reasons according to the law to have a phone or computer intercepted, there must be a report about its validity and legality. Then one signs the warrant, which is numbered and has a watermark. When I sign, I put down the date and exact time, so any suspicions are eradicated...

Can’t you give preferential treatment to your long list of past clients?

Of course not. At the end of the day I am not listening to anything. It is Security Service’s decision to see what action to take.

But with a ministry so big and sensitive, don’t you think you can end up looking bad despite the checks and balances?

I know I live in a small country where such suspicions are the order of the day but I will be satisfied doing my work, according to my conscience and to the best of my abilities. If I have to ask the Prime Minister for some respite, I will. But with all these suspicions, nothing will happen. I can assure the people that whoever has these suspicious is dreaming because I will be a minister who works according to the law and to my abilities.

How does PBS feature in your ministry?

It’s actually a very intelligent move. Today, there is TVM and TVM2. I already met PBS and recommended that TVM2 be kept for educational programmes, literature and politics. Therefore, those who don’t want to follow politics can choose the mainstream TVM. Then, TVM2 can also provide time and space for the police and the army so people can see what they are doing...

There are many rumours that you will be getting rid of TV presenters like Lou Bondi, Peppi Azzopardi and Norman Vella who were all at the receiving end of criticism by Labour.

I don’t know where you hear such things. You make it sound like we are going to chop off everyone’s heads and bring about a disaster. I think many people are exaggerating, to create harm.

Labour exponents like Jason Micallef have demanded the resignation of “arch-Nationalists” like PBS CEO Anton Attard and news editor Natalino Fenech. He asked who is defending them. How do you respond?

I don’t know exactly what he said but as minister I am not prepared to interfere in the editorial board or the board of directors. I just want these people to understand this is a national station for the whole country.

So you are going to give them a chance.

I want balance... A fair national station which one can enjoy watching without feeling it is manifestly one-sided, one way or the other. If this happens on one programme, it is one thing, but if all the programmes are like that, it is the wrong style. At present, I am taking stock of situation. So far nothing has changed. In fact, chairman Joe Mizzi will be going to the Eurovision for continuity... My first interest is my country.

Your chief of staff is Silvio Scerri, a well-known businessman involved in Nexos Lighting. Do you see a potential conflict in his political involvement?

Not at all. Mr Scerri was a businessman but sold his business last November and resigned as a director. Today I have an advantage because I have a person with the experience of a businessman. I want to be surrounded by good people.

He has no more business interests?

He sold his shares in November

Did he do this by coincidence or because he knew he would get involved in politics?

Is there anyone who is a prophet and knows who would win an election, who will become minister and who will be appointed?

What was he doing after November?

You can speak to him but I think it is a person’s choice to sell his business and stop being a director. Maybe he was thinking of starting a new business but he didn’t so he’s not a businessman today.

The Prime Minister wants to update the Code of Ethics for ministers. Do you think this is needed?

Yes, I agree with him because this code was drawn up many years ago and it is archaic.

In what respect? Can you give me one example of what does not apply today?

All things need to be revised after a certain time.

But do you think, for instance, that ministers should be able to start doing private work too?

That’s all I need!

Many think you took the position of (parliamentary secretary) Jose Herrera who was Labour spokesman for aspects of justice and home affairs for many years. Have you two spoken since your swearing in? Is there any bad blood?

Not at all. Since then I have met with Dr Herrera, who is a colleague and a fellow defence lawyer, on two occasions; at a private party on Sunday and another on Tuesday. We were friends, and still are.

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