Substantial criticism has been made in Llanito World about the democratic deficit that exists in Gibraltar by reason, in the main, of the lack of any separation of powers and the disregard for the Rule of Law. The deficiencies do not stop there, as a review of the Standing Rules and Orders of the Gibraltar Parliament reveal ("Rules"). The bias of the Rules favours the majority party in Parliament (the Government) and the Chief Minister. All the deficiencies highlighted in Llanito World are magnified further, to the detriment of constituents and good governance, because Gibraltar's Parliament is unicameral and not bicameral. In a unicameral system, democratic safeguards need to be more robust. In Gibraltar not only are they not robust they are virtually non-existent.
Essentially the only safeguard that exists is an election every 4 years in which the choice is limited to those who stand for election. Many do not stand for a variety of reasons, many of these reasons are peculiar to a small jurisdiction. This lack of volunteering and participation in the political process in turn reduces the effectiveness of the electoral safeguard available every 4 years. The most voiced opinion that I hear at election after election is to the effect that the choice for the electorate is as between the lesser bad of two bad choices, which can in turn be exploited by any incumbent Chief Minister in Mugabesque (sic) manner. This being the the case, there is something drastically wrong with the system In Gibraltar. The system needs to be changed radically. The radical change must include reforms that will eliminate the fear of repercussions that many have that prevents them participating actively and openly in politics. A brief analysis of some of the Rules further reveal that the democratic deficit is rather deeper than a lack of separation of powers.
One of the fundamentals of Parliamentary democracy is that the Chief Minister is not chosen by direct plebiscite but is chosen by the party or coalition that has a majority in Parliament. It is also true to say that the acts of any Chief Minister fall to be scrutinised by Parliament. It is Parliament alone that can dismiss a Chief Minister, as in order for an electorate to dismiss him/her the electorate has to turn against the incumbent government and elect an opposition party in its place. The power of a Chief Minister is greatly enhanced by this factor. It is further enhanced by his ability to choose the timing of meetings of Parliament.
Under the Rules, it is the Chief Minister, alone, who decides where and when a meeting of Parliament is convened. Admittedly he is forced by the 2006 Constitution to hold at least 3 meetings in any calendar year. The control that his ability to decide the timing of meetings gives the Chief Minister is excessive. Parliament is charged, amongst other duties, to oversee the performance of a government and a Chief Minister. Timing is often of extreme importance in influencing the immediacy and relevance of any issue or incident and delay of embarrassing debates favour the Chief Minister and his Government. It is detrimental to democracy that the Chief Minister can delay a meeting of Parliament when burning issues should be debated close to the occurrence of any subject requiring debate.
This ability to pick the time to hold a meeting of Parliament is a curb on democracy. Even if the Government has an inbuilt majority, parliamentary debate is of the utmost importance in forming public opinion. If the Opposition is prevented from debating issues close to a relevant occurrence its ability to form and influence public opinion is curtailed or eliminated altogether on occasions. In turn this reduces the effect of the only democratic safeguard that exists, namely the decision to oust or not to oust a government at a general election.
Additionally reducing the number of meetings of Parliament to the limited number required by the 2006 Constitution has the effect of concentrating a large amount of business to a limited number of days in a year. Press reports of proceedings become too compressed and detailed. Editorial decisions have to be made to determine the importance of what stories to run with and which to drop. Stories arising from questions or debate about issues or events that are dated take second place and frequently are buried in the morass of issues that have overtaken that event or occurrence. All these factors have the effect of reducing, in numbers of persons, the reach of important stories and reports which come to the ears of the public. The importance and impact and pernicious effect on democracy of the Chief Minister's power to decide on timing should not be underestimated.
Parliament should have a fixed and regular timetable so that the Chief Minister cannot control when important issues are debated in Parliament. Regularity of meetings is also important to ensure currency of debates. The right of the Chief Minister should be limited to recalling Parliament outside those times if he/she considers that to be appropriate. This will mean that important issues can and could be debated at the current, relevant and immediate time, press reports will be easier to follow and more closely connected in time to the issue in debate. Importantly it will force politicians to be what they are, politicians, not administrators.