Too 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.