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CM appeals for ‘unity and realism’ in NY message highlighting challenges and opportunities ahead

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo delivered a two-pronged New Year message on Monday night, warning the community to “fasten seatbelts” for difficult and complex challenges in 2022, even while insisting he remained “deeply optimistic and positive” about Gibraltar’s prospects.

At a time when the Gibraltar Government faces multiple domestic pressures in parallel to the double challenges of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Picardo appealed for unity as the key to successfully navigating “tough waters” ahead.

“From these many challenges, we can deliver many successes, but only if we stick together, only if we put our collective interests above our personal self-interests, only if we plan for a better future for our children and not for a short-term gain for ourselves,” he said in a message broadcast on GBC.

“And that is what we must do as responsible members of this community today.”

Mr Picardo said Gibraltarians had a history of “sticking together through adversity”, adding that the past five years had forced Gibraltarians to face “successive waves” of hardship topped by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

He was bullish that Gibraltar had faced down challenges in the past and would continue to do so.

“Now is not a time to lose our nerve,” he said.

“But is also not a time to turn on one another.”

“We are forged from greater steel than the self-interest we are seeing from a few, seeking to instil division amongst the many.”

“We cannot let the few dilute the interests of the many.”

“Because if we stand together, I have no doubt that this year we can once again emerge successful after twelve months of hard work and determination.”

“There is no external challenge we cannot overcome.”

In the wide-ranging address, Mr Picardo reflected on the tensions that have emerged into public debate in different areas of the administration ranging from the GHA to schools and the public sector as a whole.

The Chief Minister welcomed the “responsible and sensible” decision by Unite the Union to postpone the demonstration it had planned for Monday evening to protest about insecure employment contracts at the GHA.

And he acknowledged the call from unions to engage with the government on dialogue not just in respect of the GHA but across the public sector.

But he sought too to temper expectation with “objective reality” against the backdrop of a deficit in public finances and the heavy impact of paying for Gibraltar’s response to Covid-19, which is estimated to have hit £300m by the end of 2021.

That, he said, was the equivalent of half of Gibraltar’s revenue spent on the pandemic alone, with the impact worsened by inflation running at over 4%.

The Chief Minister sketched out investments over the past decade of GSLP/Liberal administration in the areas of health, education and the public sector, all of which have dominated the headlines in recent months as workers and unions alike express multi-layered concerns ranging from employment contracts to planning for the impact of technology on the workforce.

He said the public sector workforce had increased from 4,824 employees to 6,480 since the GSLP/Liberals were elected into government in October 2011.

The cost of the public sector payroll had increased from £163m to £280m in that time, with salaries in the civil service higher than parity with the UK by an average of 40%.

He praised the GHA’s response to the pandemic but stressed that the government had invested heavily in healthcare over its time in office, increasing the GHA budget from £78m to £140m this year.

The GHA workforce had increased too, he said, from 808 to 1,103 full time posts, and from 123 part times to 158.

“I fully understand that there are issues still to resolve in our health service,” the Chief Minister said.

“But there is no lack of investment in our health services and there is no lack of recruitment.”

In the area of education, Mr Picardo said there were 297 full time teachers when the GSLP/Liberals were elected in 2011, a figure that had risen to 370 this year.

The education budget, meanwhile, had risen from £22m in 2011 to almost £60m this year and new schools had been provided, with more in the pipeline.

The Chief Minister acknowledged that “we have not got everything right” – he did not elaborate on this – but said the government he leads had been “strong and effective” when dealing with the toughest issues, adding: “Whether it has been popular or not, we have done the right thing.”

Mr Picardo offered no news on the progress of the negotiations for a UK-EU treaty on the Rock’s future relationship with the bloc.

But he repeated his government’s often-stated position that any Brexit treaty will not cross red lines on Gibraltar’s “exclusively British” sovereignty, jurisdiction and control.

“The deal, if we make one, will not compromise our sovereignty, or we will not do it,” he said.

“It will be a deal on movement and fluidity of goods and people, and a deal that can be the foundation of a new and improved level of prosperity for every family in Gibraltar.”

“Because the concept of ‘shared prosperity’ passes through the litmus test of maintained and enhanced prosperity for our businesses and our people as a sine qua non [an essential requirement].”

“And our objective is to achieve a continually more prosperous Gibraltar, freely trading and interacting with its neighbours, enjoying historically high standards of living, education and healthcare for our people in an indisputably British Gibraltar.”

“That is what we seek to achieve, but make no mistake about it, it will be a legally complex deal.”

“It will be equally politically complex and based on the reality of the multilateral relationships that our politics depends on.”

See the Chief Minister’s New Year message in full on page 4.

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