So parliamentary reform is now fairly and squarely on the political agenda and set to take up some of the debate at the now imminent general election. The positive step is that now all political parties are agreed that parliamentary reforms are necessary, the PDP having been the first party to publish specific policies on this subject. Electoral reform is also on the agenda of the GSLP and the PDP. It does not form part of the GSD motion that was forced through Parliament using the Government majority. The CM has simply said, on the subject of electoral reform, that this was slipped into the GSLP amended motion. The GSD has not announced any policy on electoral reforms as yet.
The negative step is that, once again and par for the course, there is a move away from the substantive debate into the game of party political accusations and counter-accusations. Yes it is true that the GSLP voted against the GSD Government sponsored motion in Parliament. However, is it true, as the PDP has said in its press release, that this vote indicates that the GSLP do not have a commitment to the reforms? The press release further implies that there was a possibility that the size of Parliament could or would be increased before the next election. In fact a 12 month period is given to a Select Committee of the whole Parliament to consider the content of the Motion. This timetable, is indicative, clearly, that no one intended any reforms to be in place before the forthcoming election. I do not consider that events in Parliament support, at all, the suggestion of the PDP, and indeed that of the GSD implied in the CM's reply in the debate in Parliament, that the GSLP do not have a commitment to enact parliamentary and electoral reforms. The evidence points in exactly the opposite direction.
The GSLP have already issued press releases committing to wider reforms than just electoral and parliamentary reforms. For example it has given a commitment to enact a wide ranging Freedom of Information Act, with retrospective effect. That is indicative of an opposite intent. This opposite intent is palpable, also, from a proper and careful analysis of events (as published in the local press) in Parliament and a comparison of the motions of each of the GSD and the GSLP.
In his intervention Fabian Picardo made clear and absolute the Opposition's support for most of the GSD's motion. It is abundantly clear that reform has cross party support. So what does the GSD's motion contain?
- It suggests more frequent question time, well this is not a reform at all, this can be achieved immediately.
- It proposes parliamentary committees, again there is ample provision already to allow this to be implemented immediately.
- It wants more frequent meetings of Parliament to allow more opportunity for Opposition motions, well this is already in the gift of the CM.
- Broadcasting of meetings on TV is a further proposal, well the legislation to allow that is already in place.
- A review of Standing Orders, again that can be done without any legislation.
- it proposes an increase in the number of MPs to allow for backbenchers, who would receive a "nominal attendance allowance".
So, other than for the increase in numbers of MPs, there is really nothing to the GSD Government's proposals. It is just an admission of past procedural failings that have been used by government after government to reduce parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. This behaviour has, thus, made government more opaque for the electoral advantage of the incumbent governing party from time to time. Most can be implemented without discussion or legislative change.
As for the increase in the number of MPs, that is something that I have advocated. I stand by that proposal but it is not that simple. Thought has to be given, for example, to how these will be elected or appointed. If appointed, what criteria would be applied and what powers would appointed persons have? Additional thought needs to be given to what rules will be applied to avoid the CM from increasing the number of "Ministers". Such action would negate the effect of having more MPs in manner that would result in an element of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. There is much more to consider, think about and bring into argument before a bland increase in the number of MPs would resolve the issues of accountability and transparency that need resolution.
In this context it becomes difficult to take seriously some of the pronouncements of the CM during the debate of his motion in Parliament. He variously said:
- "We know what's wrong with this Parliament"
- "We know what needs fixing"
- "Who is there, out there in Gibraltar, that knows that"
- "Who is there, out there in Gibraltar, that is not involved in politics in Gibraltar that knows even how this Parliament works, let alone how it can be fixed."
Well, leaving aside the disdain and contempt that these comments show for voters and their level of knowledge, he contradicts himself. He contradicts himself because he admitted, in that same debate, that the issue of Parliamentary reform was not a priority issue for the GSD Government. He said that it had become one due to public debate on political websites and social media sites. Well at least those participating in those debates ( and enough have in order to cause the GSD to react) must know what is wrong, what needs fixing and how Parliament works. Otherwise why did he pay attention to public opinion and react to it? Additionally all he needs to do is listen to the many conversations constantly being had on this subject in Gibraltar. It is also worthy of note that most of what the GSD has included in its proposals are issues brought to public attention on this blog ... so at least this blogger knows a little. These statements simply evidence the self-righteousness that I highlighted in my immediately preceding blog.
A worthy exercise to determine how serious each party is on the issue of reforms is to contrast the GSD motion that was forced through Parliament with the one proposed by the GSLP. First let us contrast statements made by the Leader of the Opposition during the debate:
- "The way that Parliament works has been shaped by people"
- "The public in Gibraltar ... should have an influence on what we do"
- "Reforms must bring us closer to the electorate because many people see us as remote ..."
These are democratic and inclusive pronouncements, totally the opposite of the exclusive, autocratic and dismissive (of the electorate) statements made by the CM.
Let me turn now to the motion proposed by the GSLP, its main components are:
Let me turn now to the motion proposed by the GSLP, its main components are:
- It proposed the setting up of the Gibraltar Commission on Democratic and Political Reform to consider and report to Parliament on electoral and parliamentary reform.
- This Commission would invite and consider public representations and report to Parliament within 12 months.
- Then either Parliament or a Referendum would within 3 months decide on reforms to be implemented within 6 months.
- Electoral reform and parliamentary reform terms of reference are drafted in the widest of terms.
These are not proposals that can be said to indicate an aversion to reform. These proposal rather indicate a desire to widen the scope of the reforms. This interpretation is especially so if taken in the context of the acceptance in Parliament by the GSLP of the need for reforms. Certainly the inclusion of consideration of electoral reforms by the GSLP do widen substantially the scope proposed in the GSD motion.
The reaction of the CM to the Commission suggested by the GSLP is mistaken. The CM suggested that it was "a retrograde step" because Parliament should decide how to conduct its own business, otherwise its sovereignty would be diluted. This is not so. The use of Commissions by sovereign Parliaments is widespread in the UK and elsewhere. The sovereignty of Parliament remains unaffected. In the end it is Parliament that debates and decides on what the final reforms will be and then enacts laws in the form that it alone decides to give effect to its own decisions, not those of any Commission. It may be that these views coincide but the sovereign legislative process is undertaken by Parliament. The objection to the Commission in the end amounts to the same self-righteous reasoning as the belief and opinion that only those in Parliament are capable of suggesting reforms to itself. This is the same error of judgment as was made in relation to the manner in which proposals to reform the Constitution were formulated. This was done solely by a Select Committee of Parliament, rather than a Constitutional Conference of Representative Bodies together with Parliamentarians
The reaction of the PDP to the Oppositions stance is predictable but also not understandable. It betrays a desire to promote a hurried and ill-thought out increase in the number of MPs, without peripheral reforms to the electoral system or thought given to the details of how this would work. The increase in the number of MPs was never going to be achieved before the forthcoming election as the PDP suggests. It is also significant that the PDP wants this change urgently. Does it perceive it as an immediate way into Parliament? I would have thought the PDP is better off not only insisting on an increased number of MPs but also on seeking proportional representation. Also this reform in isolation from other wider reforms will not give the PDP the oversight of Government that is required. I believe patience is in the PDPs interests and in its favour.
So all in all, there has been a major and positive advance towards the reform of Parliament and towards the reform of the electoral system. The advance is only in terms that all the parties having boarded the "reform train". The destination of the train is still unknown. It is that destination that is important for democracy in Gibraltar. The Motion passed in Parliament on Monday alone is not sufficient for the GSD to persuade electors of the GSD's democratic leanings. It has been in power too long, having done nothing on that front, for the electorate to be fobbed off with so little. I am afraid that the GSD will need to do better in the election campaign but its credibility will be tainted by the paucity of that Motion. I wonder how the GSD will be able to counteract the effect of and if the GSLP roll out a programme of democratic reforms during the election. It seems to me that the GSD has lost the initiative on this issue. The initiative has been taken by the GSLP, although, in all fairness, the first and main proponents of reform have been the PDP.