How I Cut and Pasted my Way into Constructive Opposition

image-1-pngToo often, Parliament seems to resemble little more than rival factions of football fans trying to outdo the other across a stadium. We have got far too used to chants of “the GSLP this” and “the GSD that” and “sixteen years of office” and “the promised new dawn” – the typical cries that lead to inward groans among the people we were elected to represent. Important issues of politics and conscience tend to be sharply divided along party lines, an almost cult-like devotion firmly entrenched in partisanship. Gibraltarians are fed up of this behaviour and rightly expect more from their parliamentarians. It should not have to be like this.

And, this week, for a tiny moment, at least, it wasn’t. The debate on mental health services that led to me proposing an amendment to Roy Clinton’s motion (which, in itself, also generated a counter-motion from Neil Costa) saw the Government show a genuine willingness to listen to and cooperate with an Opposition member, brushing aside partisan propaganda in order to reach a satisfactory solution that should benefit those affected by this important issue. While it was unfortunate that the GSD refused to join us in voting in favour of this compromise, the episode nonetheless reflected that, when presented with constructive, well-researched and potentially beneficial ideas, the Government was willing to forgo its bluster for something far more pragmatic. It is not common for a Government to vote in favour of an amendment proposed by an Opposition member (with the rest of the Opposition voting against), but it represents what good diplomatic democracy should be.

I was initially encouraged to see the GSD draw attention to the issue of mental health services – a topic which I raised in Parliament last month – and I was impressed by the commitment and conviction shown by Mr. Clinton, whom I admire and whose friendship I value. However, I found the proposed motion to be somewhat toothless. To my mind, the motion failed to engage fully with some of the salient specific needs of individuals affected by mental health matters – service users, families and professionals – and it would have let the Government off the hook too easily by allowing them to pay lip-service to the issue without challenging them on specific fronts. Given government majority, the motion was never going to pass, and it was no surprise to see Minister Costa present his own counter-motion, one that trumpeted the Government’s achievements and criticised the GSD’s record in this field during their time in office. Both these moves lacked pragmatic substance and keeping it as it was would have done a disservice to the needs of those affected by mental health issues.

I, in turn, decided to propose an amendment of my own, one that, I felt, addressed these needs more directly by calling the Government to act on specific areas for improvement as highlighted to me by professionals in the field. These included asking the Government to consider making data relating to mental health issues publicly available, to looking into more thoroughly implementing a structured, multi-agency approach to mental health care (similar to the Care Programme Approach used in the UK), to explore the possibility of establishing a bespoke, school-based mental health support programme to deal with issues affecting children and adolescents, and to adopt a direct and dedicated ‘crisis-line’ system for patients and their families. These represent clear-cut strategies that are aimed to improve the service. I felt that this reflected a more positive style of Opposition, one that not only identifies gaps in the system, but suggests ways in which these can be filled. It also acknowledges the reality that, after years of under-investment, there have been notable strides in the area of mental health over the past five years – this is an undeniable fact that one must not be blind to. However, the service has to keep improving, and it is my job as an Opposition member to point the Government in the right direction and to hold them to account should developments not be forthcoming.

I was gratified to see the Government willing to consider my views and to support my amendment by making compromises on theirs. I took this as a recognition of the value of the proposals I was putting forward. The physical final version of the eventual composite amendment is literally there in black and white for all to see. Time constraints meant that after much deliberation, the new amendment took the shape of a reconstructed A4 sheet full of staples and hand written deletions, with my main points literally pasted over those Government statements that needlessly, in my view, slammed GSD records and highlighted further ‘new dawn achievements’. I hoped this compromise would help reach out to the support of my colleagues on the Opposition benches. Sadly, this was not to be.

I found all this to be a healthy and positive way of doing Parliamentary business. It showed that Government and Opposition members can work together in a purposeful manner through common sense, logical argument and a genuine desire to help people, one that transcends party politics. It is a style of Opposition that I prefer, and, for the good of the community’s confidence in what we do in the House, I fervently hope that it will catch on.

I have also noted that this last week saw the first anniversary of my election as a Member of Parliament. It has been a tumultuous year, one that has gone from the excitement of having achieved a platform that meant I could somehow emulate my father’s life mission of helping people, through a period of soul-searching that led to my resignation as a member of the GSD. Having worked as an independent member over the past few months, I feel that I have found my place in Parliament, and I am proud of the contributions I have made to debates such as single-sex marriage, co-education, security in our schools, the GHA, and, now, mental health. I am looking at my second year in Parliament with great excitement, and I hope that those who voted for Marlene Hassan Nahon a year ago are feeling that this vote was worthwhile.


Now…what’s next?


Co-education and Sounding offs; Union Demonstrations and Mazal Tovs 

Parliament kicked off this week with an animated debate regarding the issue of co-education. This was in response to the motion presented by the GSD Opposition urging a detailed study into the possibility of a co-educational future for our secondary schools. Bizarrely, even though most Members of Parliament seemed to be in favour of the sentiment of the motion, a three-hour discussion ensued, with the Government presenting an amendment that offered little change to the GSD’s motion.
As someone who very much agrees with the possibility of co-education being explored further, I supported the amendment, not least because the objectives it presented seemed clearer and more purposeful than the ones on the original motion. I look forward to hearing back from the working party that has been established and see how realistic over-turning what I feel is a forty-year old error of judgment will be.
However, what does concern me is that the issue of co-education will detract from matters which are even more important to the day-to-day management of schools and teaching of lessons. While less crowd-pleasing and headline-grabbing, these urgent issues are far more pressing within our education system: they include buildings and maintenance, of course, but also resources and funding, teacher accountability, teacher morale and attendance, curriculum provision, issues with human resources, parental support, staff training, extended service incentives and a closer relationship between the Department of Education and a more pro-active social services structure. These more accurately represent the real challenges faced by teachers and students alike, and while I welcome the ideology behind this bill, I feel that a similar focus should be given to these priorities. Otherwise, a cosmetic change will only lead to another mistake, one which, again, may take generations to reverse.

 On the subject of issues going back generations, I have also seen that, once again, some of my father’s former political rivals have continued their attempts to discredit his reputation through the Chronicle’s letter pages. With references to clandestine secret papers and allegations of ‘he-said-this-he-said-that’, these tiresome communications – which seem aimed more towards promoting a book than making a coherent political point – are nothing more than classless attempts to tarnish a man who passed away almost twenty years ago. When I was younger, and perhaps feeling less secure about my father’s political legacy, I would have been incensed by these comments, and my instinct was to fight back, no doubt much to the childlike glee of these gentlemen. But now, knowing full well how fondly my father is remembered in our community and how steadfast their affections are towards the Father of the Gibraltarians, my anger has turned to pity. I feel sorry for these gentlemen for the burden of bitterness that they have evidently carried for many years; I sympathise with their irrelevance; and I hope that they will soon find the inner peace and dignity that will one day let them leave my father’s memory be.

UNITE the Union held a demonstration yesterday on the concerns about the cuts in MOD jobs and the way things have been managed or in this case, ‘mismanaged’. The union’s concerns go beyond the offer of a Voluntary Early Retirement Scheme package to the existing Local Entry Civilians workforce and the fear is that moves could be made to force compulsory redundancies. Other concerns include the uncertainties surrounding what arrangements are being made for the take over of whatever duties will be remain outstanding once the VERS are dropped from the workforce. The Unions have accused the MOD of a fait accompli in what was meant to be a ‘consultation’ process on such a crucial issue, something which will no doubt have a huge impact on Gibraltar’s economy at such a delicate time. Furthermore, this uncertainty reflects a total lack of responsibility on the part of the MOD and the UK Government, one which, in my view, Gibraltar does not deserve given our steadfast support of the MOD over the decades. Because of this, I reserved myself from attending a social event yesterday evening with the Armed Forces Minister which I was invited to, as a mark of discontent with the less than unsatisfactory manner in which the UK Government have gone about these redundancies and whatever potential “shrinkage” they may have in mind for our civilians.

 As busy and exciting as the week has been, the highlight was definitely the celebration of my son Joey’s Bar Mitzvah. This wonderful occasion brought together all my dearest friends and family members in a spirit of festivity, and it was a joy to unwind from Parliament in such a special event. But as I watched my son deliver his reading as he took his first steps towards spiritual manhood, or my daughter Rachel deliver an amusing speech that showed her clear affection for her sibling, or Eve proudly showing off her drumming skills, or my youngest Noa being fussed over by all, it really placed in context the importance of what we must aspire to in Parliament: if only for our children, it is essential that we get decisions right.

 So, on that note: what’s next?  


Taxis, heels, etc 

It was a whirlwind few days in Parliament last week. After the exultation of the ground-breaking Same-Sex Marriage Bill, our attentions turned to perhaps less momentous but by no means less important affairs that affect the smooth running of our community. These issues might be less headline-grabbing, but they reflect the everyday concerns of many Gibraltarians, so it is only right that we give these the appropriate attention.
On Thursday, I had the opportunity to challenge Minister Paul Balban on the matter of the taxi service. With the Chamber of Commerce’s recent criticism of the service – an opinion frequently shared by many members of the general public – it was important that the Minister faced these questions. While the Minister recognised that he was less than satisfied with the current levels of service – not a very glowing endorsement – he failed to give many details about how he plans to improve matters, outrightly dismissing the prospect of introducing more licenses. Given the important role that the taxi service plays in terms of delivering a positive experience for tourists, as well as in encouraging locals to not use their cars (and the environmental and parking implications of this), I urge the Minister to not blind himself to these criticisms and to heed our suggestions in order to solve a seemingly perennial problem.
I then had the opportunity to question Minister Balban about the perilous state of some of the paving in Main Street. Wearers of high heels know only too well how tricky it can be to negotiate your way through town while avoiding areas where the cobblestones have stilleto-sized gaps, presenting dangerous hazards. While this might seem trivial to the unaffected, there are many Health & Safety implications, including the very real possibility of a nasty accident one day. I was promised in the House that the filling of the cobblestone gaps will be completed within this electoral term as per manifesto commitment. Again, I hope that this will be resolved, preferably before we all have to resort to a nasty trip up.
Thursday also saw me engage in dialogue in Parliament with Minister Joe Bossano for the first time. At the beginning of our brief exchange, I reminded him of the many debates he held with my father, and expressed the hope that this new generation of Bossano / Hassan dialogue will feature the same level of mutual respect. Mr Bossano’s reaction left me in no doubt whatsoever of the affection which he still holds for his former rival, for which I am very grateful.
Another exciting debate at Parliament was prompted by the proposal of a Bill to establish a Consultative Council in Gibraltar. This initiative would see some of our nation’s finest political minds – including former Chief Ministers and their Deputies – gathered around a table to advise the current Chief Minister on issues of national importance. It would be irresponsible to deny Gibraltar this privilege, so I felt the right thing to do would be to support the Bill, but I did express some legitimate concerns about how the Council’s oath of secrecy would impact on active MP’s – particularly members of the Opposition – who might be invited to form part of the body. Would it be wrong for a Leader of the Opposition or ordinary MP to form part of a council where an oath of secrecy must be taken? My dilemma with this is that as great as our collective responsibility is to the Chief Minister and his Government, our responsibility to the electorate is greater, and I therefore remain unconvinced about being privy to information that may be in the public interest if this had the effect of compromising my ability to publicly hold the Government to account, which is precisely what I have been elected to do. To me, this would represent a conflict both of interests and of conscience. The people of Gibraltar need to be confident that their Opposition representatives can act without having any hands tied by a justified need for secrecy and discretion. I feel that, in this scenario, the duties and responsibilities to which the electorate binds me could be curtailed, preventing me from fulfilling this role with honesty and sincerity.
However, on assurance by the Chief Minister that the Bill gives members the option to remove themselves from the Council or to refuse to join it, leaving it up to the conscience of the individual invited to decide, I am satisfied that in principle the council will be a fruitful incentive, especially in the times we are living.

This productive week in the House was tinged with sadness, though, with the news of the passing of David Hoare. David was a fantastic personality and, throughout his many years as a radio broadcaster, his was the voice that many Gibraltarians chose to listen to, and it will be forever associated with many important events, most notably the full opening of the frontier in 1985. His wit and charm were second to none, and the many tributes on social media clearly indicate that, both as a broadcaster and as an Anglican reverend, David touched the lives of many. Our community will feel his loss deeply.

This session of Parliament is by no means over, and we still have some exciting issues to discuss throughout the weeks ahead. Being a Parliamentarian means that every day is different, and you get to listen to powerful arguments and to passionate exchanges of ideas. It really is quite a privilege.

But, for now……what’s next?