Police commissioners in Tonga and the dropped reforms

Tonga Police Commissioner Steve Caldwell ... debate about powers and responsibilities. Image: Kaniva Tonga

COMMENTARY: By Philip Cass of Kaniva Tonga

Where does the responsibility of Tonga’s Police Commissioner lie?

Is it to the Police Minister and Cabinet? To the king and the Privy Council? Or should it be directly to the people?

Should the Commissioner be appointed by Cabinet, by the  monarch or by direct vote?

These questions were at the heart of the package of changes which the late ‘Akilisi Pōhiva government failed to get through Parliament and which the current government has now dropped.

But is there a perfect system and would it ever be workable?

Police commissioners in Tonga are currently supplied and paid for by the New Zealand government. At times they have faced an uphill battle combatting corruption and trying to improve efficiency in the force.

In the past this has led to the extraordinary sight of the Police Minister openly attacking Police Commissioner Steven Caldwell and supporting dismissed officers.

As Kaniva News reported in March 2018, during the Pōhiva administration, Minister of Police Māteni Tapueluelu openly sided with a number of officers protesting about their treatment.

Many people would have seen this as an attack on the Commissioner’s independence and an attempt to impose political restraints on the role.

Police commissioners
In New Zealand, the Commissioner of Police is appointed for a five-year term by the Governor-General. The Commissioner is accountable to the Minister of Police for the administration of police services, but acts independently in carrying out law enforcement decisions.

In Australia, the appointment and responsibilities of the Police Commissioner in each state follow roughly the same pattern.

In Queensland, the Police Commissioner reports to the Minister for Police.

In New South Wales the police force is described as a servant of the Crown. While independent of government, the Police Commissioner is responsible to the minister.

In Victoria, the Chief Commissioner of Police is appointed by the Governor in Council (the Cabinet and the State Governor) for a five-year term.

In South Australia, the police force is headed by the Commissioner of Police, who reports directly to the Minister for Police.

In Western Australia, the State Government and Executive Council (the State Cabinet and the State Governor) appoints the Police Commissioner.

In the United Kingdom, the situation is even more complex.

There are 41 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales who are directly elected.

In London, the City of London Police are overseen by City of London Corporation. The mayor of London is responsible for the governance of the Metropolitan Police.

In Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is supervised by the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

In Scotland, Police Scotland is overseen by the Scottish Police Services Authority.

The British Transport Police and the Civil Nuclear Police, which operate across the UK, have their own authorities.

In the United States, direct election of public office holders is common, often involving  positions that in other countries would be government appointments.

Separation of the powers
Behind the debate about the position of the Police Commissioner lies the doctrine of the separation of powers.

This holds that government consists of three branches, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary and that all should function independently and without interference from the others.

The Austrian Parliament has declared: “History has time and again shown that unlimited power in the hands of one person or group in most cases means that others are suppressed or their powers curtailed. The separation of powers in a democracy is to prevent abuse of power and to safeguard freedom for all.”

In the New Zealand context, the legislature consists of Members of Parliament and the Governor-General. The role of the Legislature is to make laws and to scrutinise the Executive.

The Executive consists of ministers and government departments. The role of the xecutive is to decide policy, propose laws, which must be approved by Parliament and the Governor-General and administer the law.

The Judiciary consists of all judges. The role of the judiciary is to interpret and apply the law.

In order to prevent abuses of power and ensure each part acts as a check on the others, all three branches operate independently.

In Australia, the doctrine of separation of powers is reflected in the Constitution, which governs the Commonwealth.

This is intended to prevent the kind of dictatorship that occurs when all branches are controlled by a single authority, or the kind of corruption that can emerge from the opportunities that unchecked power brings.

After the democratic reforms that have occurred since 2010, it is unlikely that many voters would want to see too much power concentrated in one or a few hands.

The reforms have also generated a deep seated desire for accountability to the public from all levels of government.

The question for voters is how they want appointments like the Police Commissioner to be handled.

Should they be purely in the hands of the government, so appointees would be responsible to the public through the government.

Should they be made as they are now with king and Privy Council involved, a process the Pohiva government opposed?

Should figures like the Police Commissioner be directly elected by the public?

What do you think?
E-mail Kaniva News at kanivatonganz@gmail.com and we’ll share your views in a future story.

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