A mess of its own making
By Raffique Shah
July 06, 2008
Last Friday, the House of Representatives debated a motion to confirm or strike down the Police Service Commission's (PSC) nominee for the position of Commissioner of Police, Senior Superintendent Stephen Williams. Speculation was rife beforehand that the Government would reject Williams on the premise that he was too young for the top job, that the selection process was flawed.
Minister Colm Imbert, presenting government's case to reject Williams, blamed its volte-face on a convoluted process that did not achieve the objectives it was intended to. This begs several questions: did its members not support the new process, which allows for meritocracy over seniority, when the old system was altered in the said House? How could they, less than a year after the new process was debated and passed into law, now claim it is seriously flawed? Is their rationale one that is common to politicians and prostitutes, the ease with which both change their minds as easily as they change sex partners or drawers or condoms?
If we accept government's position, what it tells us is that those charged with making laws that govern us all are at best lax in their duties, or worse, they do not read the draft Bills they bring to Parliament. If there are deficiencies in the new process for selecting and appointing a CoP, those who debated the Bill and voted "Aye!" when it was approved, are not worthy of the parliamentary seats they warm.
Given my limited experience in the House, let me explain how legislation is passed into law. First, a Bill is tabled in either chamber and distributed to all MPs and Senators. One is expected to study the Bill, and usually party caucuses discuss its implications and determine if it needs to be amended, even rejected. By the time it reaches the House, MPs must have clear positions and amendments to clauses, if any, are suggested. Debate follows the second reading and a vote is then taken. In the case of this particular legislation, government required a special majority, so it would have had the support of the opposition. I should add that at the "committee stage", the Bill is studied clause-by-clause before it is referred for a final vote.
The subject legislation, given its importance-the appointment of a Police Commissioner-would have been closely scrutinised. One assumes, therefore, that all parliamentarians, especially those in government, would have taken precautions to ensure that when the Bill was proclaimed law as an Act, it met all the requirements they envisaged as being critical. So to come a year later and point to numerous defects in the procedures outlined in the selection of a CoP is to admit that you are not doing your job. If I am to apportion blame for this fiasco, I'd point fingers at the Prime Minister, the Attorney General and Leader of Government Business, all of whom should have closely scrutinised the Bill and its attendant regulations before it was made law.
Worse for the country, this failure to appoint a new CoP close to two years after the substantive office-holder retired, would worsen morale and discipline in the already beleaguered Police Service. It also sends another message to the criminals: if the politicians cannot agree on a new Commissioner, if there is in-fighting in the Service, then this is "our time". But for the bold intervention of the army and the saving grace of a small number of dedicated police officers, citizens are left exposed to criminals better organised than the police or government.
That the Government did not see it fit to arrive at a compromise-like giving Williams a contract-betrays an uncaring attitude towards the citizenry, more so to victims of crime. A Police Service in limbo is the last thing we need. Hell, even gang leaders don't need convoluted processes to appoint successors: when one is reduced to a strainer-corpse with bullets, another shootout or two would fill the vacancy, if only for a few days!
Meanwhile, as government wallows in its own mess, a word on the acting commissioner. Many individuals and organisations criticised the appointment of Deputy Commissioner James Philbert to act as CoP instead of the PSC's nominee, Williams. Since the process to appoint Williams as CoP was incomplete, it would have been inappropriate to appoint him to act. Had that been done, think of the embarrassment the man would have faced Friday last-having to vacate office, and those senior him sniggering behind his back.
Philbert was the second most senior officer, hence he was the logical choice to act in the absence of a substantive CoP. Had Williams been confirmed last Friday, Philbert would have had to step down and make way for a new chief. He will have known that when he was named by the PSC. Now he will act until his retirement date comes around, or until the Government thinks it has secured the best candidate for the job.
In the meantime, neither the Police Service nor crime-fighting seems to be a government priority.