Gibraltar Chronicle Opinion piece by Nick Cruz

In today’s Gibraltar Chronicle our Managing Partner Nick Cruz laid out his thoughts on the expansion of the Gibraltar Parliament.

I have been following the debate locally on the question of whether our Parliament should be enlarged to accommodate eight new backbenchers. Let me immediately declare an interest, before I am totally shot down. I have always had parliamentary ambition and whilst less now, at 50+, I still retain some desire to do my bit one day. Thirteen years ago, in July 2006 whilst Deputy Leader of the PDP, I was the author or co-author – with Keith Azopardi – of a paper called “Living Democracy” that formed the platform of the policy that the PDP, in 2007, made a foundation of their manifesto promise for political reform. Indeed, the reason why we felt political reform was desperately required, was because at that that time we felt the GSD Government was too authoritarian in its management of our affairs. The reforms were far reaching, with many checks and balances not least ensuring parliamentary sovereignty, which with only a few meetings a year had been lost. Part of that change was enlargement of our Parliament specifically: “We will after due consultation with the Opposition, seek the enlargement of the Parliament so that the Executive is more accountable.” Televising of Parliament and monthly meetings and questioning of the Chief Minister was also part of our manifesto promise. The reason the PDP believed it vital was that it would introduce checks and balances that mirror any healthy and mature democracy. Bi-partisan select committees of backbenchers would be able to scrutinise the executive, the Government, and carry out important work to take evidence from stakeholders on legislation and important changes in the way we governed ourselves. The fact that bi-partisan committees would be formed would endear a better working environment for our Members of Parliament and encourage less cyclical policies. Back benchers would consider how to improve policies and laws on many subjects – environment, health, education, foreign affairs etc – without only reference to what the Government of the day could do for the next election. Or the Opposition of the day to ruin it. It is fact that select committees that have existed have almost always ended up agreeing on what is our collective interest. The reality is that when we work together and take evidence from public and other stakeholders, Gibraltar works better and more constructively, to our collective long-term benefit. The idea was all about modernisation and accountability and making our community more cohesive. There were many other changes with reforms to the DPC and the like. Again declaring self-interest (at the time,) we believed (and I still do) that an enlarged Parliament enhances the prospects for 3rd parties to break into the two party system and independents to be elected. It would provide aspiring politicians and ministers with a ladder to Government and some Parliamentary experience and yes, succession, vital in any organisation. It would allow the Chief Minister to promote those who worked hard and demote those who did not, or were simply not earning their keep. This is standard in any modern democracy and to be encouraged. Additionally it would allow for those with valuable experience, but who had done their time, or were tired, to retain a role in our Governance at a low cost. The likes of previous Chief Ministers, or leading Ministers, or retired leading members of our community with political interest, could deliver statesmanlike wisdom and experience, without the cliff edge that is in, or out of Government. This is particularly important where, relatively uniquely for most democracies, we do not have a second chamber, or check, or balance.

This democratic agenda, pushed by the PDP became the key issue in the 2011 election and policies on democratic reform formed a key part of the GSLP/Liberal Alliance Manifesto. Indeed, the last debate before the leaders’ debate was focussed on this issue. By 2015 the GSD also reaffirmed its commitment to this agenda, including those who ironically are now backbenchers and oppose enlargement. The GSLP Liberals have unarguably radically reformed our Parliament and adopted many of the measures that were also the PDP’s flagship policy and we should be rightfully proud that we are moving in the right direction. We have regular parliamentary meetings, televised Parliament and regular appearances on GBC of our Chief Minister and Leader of the Opposition to answer the public’s questions. The DPC is far more public and accessible. In fact today’s democratic accountability is extraordinary, when compared to only eight years ago. The Opposition want more and so they should. The Deputy Chief Minister only a week ago has made it clear that more will be delivered and Parliamentary and political reform is a moving exercise.

May I suggest it is the label the PDP gave it: Living Democracy.

Yet the reaction appears to be largely negative, totally suspicious and extraordinarily anti-politician. We have weaponised this issue and turned it as a measure to clobber all politicians irrespective of their motives. There is a sense that “politicians are doing it for themselves”, and no other reason. We are not being fair to a class that has helped to bring Gibraltar to where it is, over generations and including the last 30 years, in the face of extraordinary challenges. It is true that for reasons given, there has been some haste (if one looks at the last few months) and that tends to make us all very suspicious and cynical. However, better late, than never, does apply. Moreover as explained this has been part of the political debate since at least 2006, it has appeared on all parties manifestos for 15 years plus. Moreover our 2006 Constitution, a result of a bi-partisan effort that dates back to 2002, was built in to deliver enlargement to 25. However, let’s assume for the moment that all who criticise are correct about motives. Let’s assume the worst. Even if one wants to ascribe negative motives to all Government and Opposition, which I think is highly unfair, so what? The tangible benefits described above will be delivered by the reality. If it happens, there will be back benchers; there will be select committees who will question and take evidence from public; there will be more accountability; there will be greater opportunities for new parties and independents; there will be more politicians from all sides who will have to work together; and given that some will be associated to Government, some Opposition and some hopefully independent, their views are likely to be less one sided or cyclical; there will be opportunity for succession and retention of wisdom. Of course it will take time to bed in and of course there will be some abuse; democratic evolution has that feature, but on balance the benefits over time, will be tremendous. Not always wise to look a gift horse in the mouth.

So what are we left with? The costs? To those that retain total cynicism, perhaps you could consider the PDP’s policy that it should be as neutral as possible. There are only 10 ministers in Government. They should be paid and paid reasonably, after all in many cases they have choices, and we all should want the best minds. The salaries of all others could be adjusted sensibly, so a distinction exists between full time politicians and part time ones who retain other jobs. Time spent in Parliament and on Select Committees, in essence time working for the public, should be measured and rewarded and idleness at the public expense should be discouraged.

Let me just finish by saying that Gibraltar is a truly wonderful place, that we are all blessed to live in and form part of. It is the collective effort of all of us and many generations past. It has evolved because we all have done our best. All including those many politicians, current and past and no doubt future ones, that we are so quick to demonise. I know it is easy to see the glass half empty, or everything negatively, but from time to time a little bit of trust and faith and confidence in those who have served and are serving, or will serve, whatever their political allegiance, may not be uncalled for. Certainly I thank you and salute you all – on all sides – on my family’s behalf.