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Feetham urges joint strategies with Govt on key issues

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A New Year message by GSD leader Daniel Feetham

I hope you have enjoyed a happy festive period with your loved ones.

Two months ago you decided to give the GSLP-Liberals another four year mandate in Government and the GSD profoundly respects your collective decision.

In a democracy providing good effective opposition is just as important as good effective Government and I believe we are well placed to perform that role.  We have a positive and energetic new team that love this community and the people in it.  Over the next year we will be reaching out to community groups and to all of you to better understand how you feel we can better represent you, your families and the community generally.  Whether it is through our weekly meetings with people who may want us to help them with their concerns or by meeting us for a chat, we hope you can get involved in trying to help us improve the way things are done in Gibraltar.

This year is an important year for our community.  We face important challenges and we hope to be able to work closely with the Government to meet them.  I have always been a strong advocate doing so. It is a matter of regret for me, that despite successfully moving a motion in Parliament three years ago, calling on the Chief Minister and myself to work together on devising a joint strategy to deal with the various permutations of a BREXIT referendum, there have been no meetings.

And there many issues that we need to consider.

I believe that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will successfully negotiate a deal with our European Partners, which will allow the United Kingdom to remain within the European Union. But what impact will it will have on us?  What attempts will Spain make to hold the United Kingdom to ransom over the applicability of such a deal to Gibraltar as it has done in the past? Any threats have to be identified and opposed at an early stage and cross party strategies devised to do so.

The Government has also said it wants Parliament to set up a cross party Select Committee on Constitutional Reform.  We very much want to work with the Government on this issue but we very much hope that common sense prevails and the Government shares its vision for Constitutional Reform with us beforehand; what are the objectives; what is the Government is trying to achieve.  That is why I have called on the Government to meet with us to explain this to us.

I have expressed the view that to embark on a process of Constitutional Reform this side of an EU referendum may be premature.  I do not believe it will happen, but if the people of the United Kingdom vote to leave the EU, our border with Spain could become a non-EU border.  In those circumstances, would we want more devolution from the United Kingdom? The Chief Minister has said that we may want more Europe at a time when the UK wants less, is that possible? These are some of the real issues that we will face over the next year or so, and it appears to me that to talk about Constitutional Reform in these circumstances is premature, but I am willing to sit down with Mr Picardo to understand his thinking and act in the best interests of our small nation.

On domestic issues we will continue with our core values of prudent and responsible management of our financial affairs and our belief in strengthening community ties, in compassion and in fairness.  We need to support vulnerable people and the reasonable aspirations of those who do the right thing.  Like every parent, I also have hopes for my children and dreams for their futures: ensuring they continue to enjoy a good education, in good and not run down schools, good training opportunities and real jobs.  These are things the GSD will continue to fight for.  They are also the things can be threatened by over spending and by huge debt or debt hidden away in a manner that prevents us from spotting emerging financial problems.  Already we have seen the Government propose to change the legal borrowing to allow them to borrow another £200 million which will rise as the economy grows.  The danger with a debt ceiling based on a percentage of the size of the economy is that a Government can spend hundreds of millions of pounds on Government projects funded by loans, the economy will grow as a consequence, thereby allowing the Government to borrow more.  It is circular and it has led to financial problems in jurisdictions such as Bermuda. Eventually debt has to be repaid and international experience suggests that often comes at the expense of cuts in services or increases in direct or indirect taxation.  It is an issue that affects you, me, my children and your children.  We would not be doing our duty to you if we relented on holding the Government to account on something as important as this.  During the next four years there will be many attempts by the GSLP-Liberals to equate our criticisms of their handling of these issues with loyalty or disloyalty to Gibraltar.  I urge you to be alive to the implications for democracy if such a view were to prevail.

This year too we will be debating the issue of gay marriage. As many of you know, the GSD has a long standing policy of allowing its members of parliament a free vote on matters of conscience. That will not change under my leadership.  I will not force members of parliament or party members to defend or oppose a position on this issue.  I understand that there members of the GSD who cannot for religious reasons support the idea of gay marriage.  I respect your views and I recognize that most of you have no desire to marginalize or offend anyone or characterize your fellow human beings in an offensive way.  You have a right to express your views and I will defend that right.

Nine years ago, when it was not popular to defend the rights of gay people to equal treatment, I took a private members bill to parliament to reduce the age of consent for gay people from 18 to 16.  Only four members of parliament, myself, Edwin Reyes, Jaime Netto and Luis Montiel voted in favour.  The GSLP-Liberals voted against.  I know what it is to stand in a minority on these issues.  Simply because social attitudes may have moved on and many people see these issues in a different light and there are more people supporting them today than there were nine years ago when I stood in a minority in parliament, does not mean that those who do not support gay marriage do not have the right to have their voice heard.  I therefore urge respectful and open debate.

I can tell you as someone that has that track record of supporting equality that I will support legislative changes to allow gay marriage.  Marriage is a very important institution to many of us. It helps bind people who love each other together. It helps cement their commitment to each other and to their family. It provides security and stability to members of the family which the GSD has always supported. And I believe that society is strengthened by that commitment.  Allowing gay people to take those vows in a non-religious ceremony and to make those commitments do not threaten the institution of civil marriage and will in the long run strength it and also the values associated with it that many of us defend.  My parliamentary colleagues have also asked me to express to you tonight their support for the principle of gay marriage.  It is now a matter for the Government as to how it decides to proceed.

I want to end by reminding you on behalf of myself and my parliamentary colleagues that we are here for you and that our door will be always be open to you. We genuinely want to hear what you have to say and we genuinely want to help you if we can. Above all, with your help we can also contribute to make Gibraltar a better place for all of us.

On behalf of myself and my family I wish you all a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.


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