The need for a new way
By Keith Azopardi, Leader of the GSD and Leader of the Opposition
I can’t help but think we are in a dark Gibraltar – darker than we have been in for a long time. This is not the Gibraltar I want to see.
In 1996 we fought an election which we thought was a crossroads moment for Gibraltar. Then we were campaigning against a lack of accountability, a serious social crisis caused by the fast launch activity, the collapse of Gibraltar’s reputation, the privileged few who prospered while our youth languished in a lack of opportunity, a culture of fear, the setting up of opaque structures and a regime where a small cabal of people were enriched.
As the sole surviving member of the 1996 GSD team in active politics today I am dismayed that some of those themes have made a reappearance with a vigour that is soul-destroying. This time however the layering of structures is more complex and sophisticated. If we complained in 1996 about a GSLP web of companies it was a thin veil compared to the veritable jungle of opacity of structures created since 2012. And I do not use the term unadvisedly. I do so because that is how the Minister for Financial Stability (an ironic title surely given the massive instability) described the unaccountable companies.
Behind that iron curtain or jungle of companies there are now hundreds of millions of pounds of public monies (your monies) being used without properly accounting to Parliament or to you. The GSLP before 1996 were choir boys compared with what is happening now.
And unfortunately, the comparison does not end there. I remember the times before 1996 where the GSD campaigned against the culture of fear. People were simply afraid to speak their minds because of the perception that an all-powerful Executive would stifle opposing voices and controlled everything. The insidious return of a culture where people are once again concerned that they cannot speak out because the Government will use all its might to squash its critics is a flashing red signal on the need for change.
We are in a Gibraltar where the Government has huge financial resources and raw power. More so than in bigger countries where there are more sophisticated structures that shine bright lights on Government excesses. Here the size of our democracy and proximity to the voter militates against freedoms and favours the feeling of direct State control over the lives of citizens. Intended or not this is a fact of our democracy as it exists today. The Government has its own massive in-house media resources which relentlessly seek to drown out opposing views. It does so in a style which I have described before as a crisis of truth because of the blatant tactic of doing so with huge spin, half-truths and sometimes peppered with downright lies. This of course not only warps the political debate but then buries the real truth of issues.
The absence of checks and balances on Executive power simply magnify the David and Goliath nature of anyone taking on the Government. The Parliament itself can never act as a handbrake on Government power because Ministers are (unlike any other democracy) in a permanent majority and almost do whatever they want. Non-parliamentary controls are poor and where they exist are hamstrung.
The McGrail Inquiry is a screaming example of events that raise serious issues that require full ventilation and scrutiny because at its core there are allegations of democratic interference by the Chief Minister. Justified or not there is now a public sense in some quarters that there is a desire to derail this Inquiry. Our democracy requires that these issues do not lie festering as they have for three years already. The Inquiry was promised by Mr Picardo in July 2020 but he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to finally convene it in 2022.
When evidence politically uncomfortable to the Chief Minister gets buried after a high-profile case is shelved following a nolle prosequi is it being too cynical to think that the rub of the green seems always to go the Government’s way? Or is it that this together with all the other examples illustrate the dire need for reform to ensure that there are better checks and balances in place?
The need for political reform is matched with the need for financial governance overhaul to decisively establish better waste, abuse and corruption controls. It was typical of this Government that having promised an Anti-Corruption Authority and not delivered it for 12 years it has now produced a law creating one that has no real teeth and is simply not fit for purpose. The failure to properly supervise, monitor and cut down on waste in public contracts is cheating the taxpayer of value for money. The emergence of a new financial cadre of “privileged few” is now fast becoming folklore.
The Government has allocated land deals to entities that did not even participate in expressions of interest processes. Worse still and in a sign of its usual Orwellian manipulation of the narrative the Government has taken to describing these entities as the “highest bidder” when in fact they did not even participate in the bidding process at all. They simply turned up after the process had closed. This is all compounded by a massive hard sell on how good all these deals are. They may or may not be. As always with this Government one needs a mountain of salt not to choke on their self-congratulatory narrative. It is essential to make processes fair, transparent and delivering of real value to the taxpayer.
None of this even gets close to starting a debate on fixing the broken systems, inadequate processes or failing public services encountered by the citizen every day. Whether it is in terms of creaking housing allocation systems, obscure antiquated administrative processes or inadequate health support the complaints that we hear on a daily basis are a litany of frustrating examples which surely could largely be remedied.
I have never been a tribal politician. I have previously praised the innovating economic vigour of the GSLP’s first term in office in 1988 as I have recognised the value of the spate of initial reforms in certain areas after 2011. But this Government has now badly lost its way and needs to be replaced. It is directionless and far too enmeshed in the causes of the democratic and financial governance mess we are in. They are part of the problem and cannot guide us out of it. It is time for a radicalising new way that deals with all these issues.