The GSD Government has published the text of a Motion dealing with parliamentary reforms, which is soon to be debated in Parliament. It is 16 years late, as far as the GSD are concerned but 24 years late for the GSLP. The GSLP was in power prior to the GSD for 8 years up till 1996 and thereafter for 16 years in Opposition. It has not made any suggestions on this subject throughout this time. At least reforms are now on the parliamentary calendar. The Motion goes far but not far enough.
Not far enough because it does not include electoral reforms; without electoral reform the fundamental ingredients and make up of Parliament do not change. This omission undermines and grossly weakens the effect of the proposed reforms. Electoral reform, such as would better allow for independents and for more diversity in Parliament, are essential, if the reforms are to have the makings of revolutionising politics in Gibraltar. Appropriate electoral reforms would make membership of Parliament more inclusive and politics less divisive.
Without going into the details of the proposals contained in the GSD Government motion, parliamentary and electoral reforms are presently one of the most important items on the political agenda. They are as important as constitutional reform was in 2006. Gibraltar had one bite at constitutional reform. The reform of the Constitution fell short of what should have been achieved. I do not mean on the self determination front. I refer to the subject of electoral and parliamentary reform, which was left to Parliament, hence where we are today. We are now being given a first opportunity to gain from parliamentary reforms. It is important to get the reforms right, because, although it is within the power of our Parliament to revisit reforms of this nature, once they have been debated and enacted, politicians are unlikely to revisit them for a long while afterwards.
Let us, the electorate push for as much as we deserve. As many as possible should join in the public consultation that will commence, if the motion is passed. The fear, however, is that what is being played out by the GSD and the GSLP/Libs is a typically high-level political ping pong game. A game that is intended to create an illusion of a sincere quest for reform but will result, once again, in cheap party political points being scored by both Government and Opposition to the detriment of democracy. Active participation in the consultation process will exemplify the interest that there is in this issue. Complacency and apathy will play into the hands of politicians.
Undoubtedly the GSLP/Libs are right to complain and have complained that the GSD have dropped its proposals for reforms on them very belatedly. That the intention was to have had these debated in and formulated by a Select Committee that has not met in 2 years. That the GSD Government now, at the last minute, before the forthcoming election, wants to change the goal posts and debate the reforms in a Committee of the whole of Parliament. That it is belatedly in a big rush to reform Parliament before the forthcoming election. That the next Parliament should not be bound by reforms passed by the GSD Government at such a late stage in the current Parliament.
This last criticism is shorthand for saying that, if the GSD Government has governed without the proposed checks and balances, why change now, when the GSLP/Libs believe it has a good chance of forming the next government. If there are reforms now, a GSLP/Libs Government will have imposed upon it restrictions not suffered by the GSD. Thus it will not have the same freedom that the GSD have enjoyed whilst in government. The use of this argument is to miss the point. Politicians are the servants of the people, so, within certain limits to allow for the necessity to govern, checks and balances are a right that voters in a democracy should enjoy. It is not a debate about how politicans can retain power relative to each other. The measure is an objective measure of what delivers greater democracy whilst ensuring that there is a Government that can function.
Fabian Picardo may be right when he says to the CM:
“As you will be aware, I have said that I believe the issue relates to the style of Government adopted by you and relates in particular to what is at least the perception that citizens and organisations are not free to associate with members of political parties other than the GSD and that this affects political freedom.”
But ... so what? This is not any reason not to undertake the reform of the electoral and parliamentary systems. The GSLP/Libs have publicly stated that Parliament needs to be reformed. Further that it needs to be opened up to ensure the quality of democracy and to make Parliament more accountable. The PDP, to its credit, was saying these things sometime ago. The GSD, as the governing party, has had the duty, responsibility and power to do something about reforming Parliament for 16 years. It promised that it would in its manifesto. It has been making pronouncements without action for years; now, finally, the GSD Government has nailed its flag to the mast. It is time to take advantage of this and of cross-party consensus for the benefit of people and democracy. It is time to put aside the selfish aspirations of politicians and their self-centred desire to retain power and an easy life to the detriment of democracy.
The reality is that voters, who have the ultimate say in a democracy at an election, have been clamouring for reforms for years. It has been a subject of discussion at bars, clubs and reunions for a long time. Politicians have paid lip service to the desire and requests of people for democratic reforms. Promises have abounded from all politicians, even the GSD, but with no action ensuing. It seems that politicians consider reforms to be an intrusion into their cosy and exclusive club of 17 elected MPs. They have avoided reforms like the plague as a consequence.
These elected politicians argue, scream and shout at and, occasionally, insult each other in Parliament (as and when the CM decides he needs a meeting). Rarely do the public (including me) hear much of what goes on in Parliament or bother to understand what is being discussed or are interested in doing so. On the whole Parliament is an irrelevance to most. This is wrong. It needs to be changed if democracy is to evolve and develop positively. Debate in Parliament has become just a game played in isolation by those few politician who sincerely believe in politics and people, rather than their own self importance, and the majority of politicians, who are in it for a variety of non-altruistic reasons. The young should be aspiring to participate in politics and join the race for a seat in Parliament. There is no such sufficiently widespread enthusiasm. This interest needs to be engendered but will not be whilst exclusion is present, due partly to the system and partly to unstructured and undemocratically run parties remaining in power.
We are in danger of the same happening all over again if the GSLP/Libs decides, as it seems it has, to dance to a tune being conducted by Peter Caruana. The tune seems to be, get the GSLP/Libs to object to reforms, the GSD Government will be seen to have tried and so done right but will have succeeded in not reforming the system. This failure suits all politicians fine and has the advantage for the GSD that it will leave the GSLP/Libs with political egg on its face.
The GSLP/Libs may be right in everything it says, as explained above, but this is not what this issue is about. The issue is more substantial than inter party rivalry and bitching. It is about people and democracy. The time has come for the GSLP/Libs to stand up and be counted. It is time for it to tell the electorate what its vision is on parliamentary and electoral reform. It must make an effort to win votes on this issue by showing its democratic credentials; it needs to use this debate to recover some of the votes lost when, pre-1996, it formed the administration. At that time it was seen, as a Government, to be too detached from voters and to be out of control.
The GSLP/Libs should feel free to make its points about how the GSD and the CM have behaved and failed on parliamentary reforms for 16 years (remembering that it also did nothing as an Opposition during this period to promote reforms and effected none between 1988 and 1996). It should not criticise, however, to the exclusion of making and vocalising the substantive arguments. Some of the substantive arguments are, what reforms do the GSLP/Libs propose? Does it feel that what the GSD proposals are good or good enough? If not, it should state the reasons why not. Does it feel that the GSD reforms go far enough? I think not, certainly not on electoral reforms. What do the GSLP/Libs think? If it thinks not, in what areas are they deficient?
The GSLP/libs should state its case and policies on this issue clearly. It has said already that it supports electoral and parliamentary reforms. It can have no good reason for not telling the electorate what these should be. If the GSD implement any GSLP/Libs suggestions, so be it. It will be a success for the GSLP/Libs, not a failure. The GSLP/Libs should not portray failure, where there should be none. It should not engage, once again, in a game of political machismo about procedure to the exclusion of substance.
The GSLP/Libs will not win the forthcoming or any election simply because of the unpopularity of the CM, as perceived by it and many of its supporters. He is very popular with many. Elections do not work like that. Incumbent governments may lose elections but for a government to lose the election, people who are not in power must positively win the election. Opposition parties have to grab the initiative on policies to be seen as a government in waitng. The GSLP/Libs need to grow up and play real politics on substantive and not procedural issues. It should not continue partaking in playground politics. The voters do not care about petty squabbles amongst politicians. If what it is about is petty squabbles, then show the GSD up for taking politics to that place. Do not be pushed by the GSD into being seen as the persons acting in a petty fashion. The GSLP/Libs participates in and carries on these squabbles at its own peril.
The GSD would love to be able to blame the GSLP/Libs for obstructing and preventing the GSD from reforming Parliament. It could even be part of the GSD's game play. The GSD seems to strategise and play thesegame beautifully to the detriment of opposing politicians. The GSLP/Libs do democracy no favours by playing at politics the way it does. In Gibraltar's current parliamentary system, which lacks checks and balances, a strong and credible Opposition, which exudes the probability of it succeeding at every next election, is presently the primary safeguard in the democratic process.
The GSLP/Libs owe it to democracy to join the fray fully and positively and aim to win and be seen, convincingly, to be aiming to win. The PDP, who have the least chance of success, do it, why doesn't the GSLP/Libs? It is the party in waiting to form Government. There it will remain, waiting on the Opposition benches forever, if it does not improve its image and take up the initiative. Gibraltar and its democratic institutions and systems, albeit deficient, deserve better from the GSLP/Libs, precisely because of the system's inbuilt deficiencies.