2006 should prove to be a politically significant year
|IN FULL: Chief Ministers New Year message
2005 was another good year for Gibraltar, as we continued to progress successfully along our political, economic and social path as a community.
Despite the challenges that we face the economy is very well set for 2006, and if others play their parts, this year should prove to be a politically significant year for Gibraltar.
Our economy continues to perform very well indeed and to grow handsomely.
And public finances remain in very good shape. As I recently announced, in the year to March 2004 the economy grew by 8% in real terms, and it has nearly doubled in size in the last 9 years. Since 1996, when we came to office, this growing economy has produced over 3000 extra jobs. Latest statistics show that there are now nearly 16000 jobs in our economy, compared to nearly 13,000 in April 1996. So, contrary to what some people tell you, there have never been more jobs, nor of more quality, or better paid jobs, for our graduates to return home to and for our school leavers to move into. This is one of the many positive fruits of our very successful economy.
And they are dignified and real jobs and not meaningless, demeaning, politically invented jobs. In fact, gaming companies, banks and other financial services companies are constantly telling Government that they cannot find enough local people to recruit. It is therefore ridiculous to suggest that cross frontier workers may be taking jobs that might be suitable for returning graduates who as a result cannot find work to return to in Gibraltar.
And the growth in job numbers will continue. During 2006, the Government will, as it has done during 2005, continue to support MOD workers, and their trade unions representatives, to get fair and reasonable deal from the MOD. As I have said before, the MOD is a very welcome part of this community and we are glad that Gibraltar can host valuable defence facilities for the MOD, but that sentiment has to be reciprocated in the way MOD treats its loyal workforce here.
International investor confidence in Gibraltar remains at an all time high. We are now reaping the rewards of 10 year?s worth of carefully nurtured economic policy. This inward investments and international confidence is vital to our economy, and therefore to our social prosperity and to our political stability and security, precisely because it creates good jobs for our youth and not so young. It also generates revenue for the Government, revenue that Government then uses to carry out public infrastructure projects, to deliver and improve our education, health, social and other public services, to pay good public sector wages ? and of course to lower personal taxes as we have done every year since 1996. Everyone benefits from inward investment and developments ? without it, we would not enjoy the Gibraltar, the economically and socially prosperous Gibraltar that we enjoy to-day, nor could we build the politically, economically and socially secure homeland and future that we are building for our children, grandchildren and future generations.
And, of course, it is this economic success story that enables us to invest in our public services and to lower taxes, while at the same time maintaining budget surpluses, keeping record levels of public reserves, and low levels of public debt. And so, we continue to deliver on our longstanding 4 - pronged economic policy of public investment in capital projects, public services improvement, tax cuts and sound public finances.
One of the fruits of our successful economy continues to be our health service. I promised you at the time of the last elections that we would focus, this term, on modernising and improving our health service, and I am delighted by the progress that we have made to date. The root and branch clinical review of our medical standards, the new professional, qualified management, and the new extra doctors and nurses, coupled with our magnificent new hospital have greatly improved clinical standards as well as facilities for patients and working conditions for our health workers. Private practice is a thing of the past ? and the elimination of public waiting lists is the next objective.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank our health care workers, the vast majority of whom have grasped this new opportunity, this new start, to transform our health service for the benefit of their own job and career satisfaction ? but primarily to give this community the health service it pays for and deserves. Having renewed the Ambulance Service, the Health Centre, and the hospital and clinical standards, the next and final phase of reform will see the modernisation and overhaul of our Mental Health Service.
2005 saw a continuation of the Government?s on-going programme to refurbish all public housing estates and to install lifts where possible. This very significant investment in our public housing stock, which improves the living environment of thousands of people, will continue in 2006, and indeed until we have refurbished the entire housing stock. I promised you that, in addition to focusing on health reforms and improvement, I would focus on building affordable homes, accessible in price terms to a wide cross section of our community. 400 such homes are already under construction by the Government at Waterport Terraces. The analysis of the applications is now complete, and we will make an announcement this month about the allocation process. In addition to those, around 1000 other affordable homes will be built at Nelson?s view, Cumberland Terraces and North Gorge.
Our housing policy consists of four main elements. Three are already under way, namely, refurbishment of the existing public housing stock and lift installation, home ownership opportunities and reform of housing rules and legislation. The fourth strand is expanding the rental housing stock and we will announce our plans for this during the first quarter of this year.
Another area where excellent progress has been made is in our caring or social services. Last year, we inaugurated the splendid, newly refurbished Mount Alvernia building where the capacity had been almost doubled and the nature and quality of the service and loving care of our elderly folk has been transformed beyond recognition. This too is the fruit of our policy of investment in the modernisation of Gibraltar?s public services. Mount Alvernia is no longer an institution but a loving and dignified last home for our elderly. Later this year we will announce our further plans for the development of elderly care provision in Gibraltar.
Much has been said recently about our youth. Certainly it is true that in this day and age, the attitude of youth everywhere to authority of all kinds be it police, teachers, parents or even just other grown ups, is very different to what it was in past times. Successful parenting, teaching and policing are, as a result becoming more difficult, and I say this not as Chief Minister, but as a parent of teenage children myself. That said, I do not think that it is as right or fair to generalise about our youth. I believe that the vast and overwhelming majority of our youth in Gibraltar are fine young people, who grow up to become valuable and upright members of our community. If a handful of youngsters (or grown ups for that matter) misbehave on certain occasions it should be dealt with as a law enforcement issue, and the Government certainly welcomes and supports the RGP?s new zero tolerance approach to this aspect of policing.
This year will also see a start to building of new roads and new parking facilities in several places around Gibraltar. But our policies to invest the financial fruits of our economic success to modernise and transform Gibraltar is not limited to roads and parking facilities, the economy, health, housing and social services. It includes also Sports and Leisure. This year we will complete the major new ?8 million plus multi sports complex at Bayside, and we will continue with construction of a fine leisure centre at King?s Bastion, following its start by the demolition of the old generating station buildings. A statement about the Leisure Centre will be made shortly. The newly exposed northern face of King?s Bastion will remain exposed. And, as promised, when the new housing and leisure centre are well under way, we will continue with the rebuilding of a new Theatre Royal of which Gibraltar will be proud for many years to come. And so, as you can see, Gibraltar is progressing rapidly on a very broad range of fronts.
The same is true of our relationship with the UK, and of our relations with Spain. I said earlier that 2006 could be a politically important year for Gibraltar. When we arrived in office in 1996 there was a general clarion call for self determination, but no vision of what that meant in practice or how it might be achieved - no specific target or vision for our Constitutional advancement. This Government has plugged that obvious gap with our policy of decolonisation through Constitutional Modernisation, i.e. establishing a modern, non-colonial constitutional relationship between Gibraltar and the UK. There will of course, be no change in Sovereignty under this constitutional Reform ? it will remain British. Nor will there be any change to the fact that, for international legal and political purposes, we will remain a non-independent, dependency of the UK. But under our proposals the relationship between Gibraltar and the UK, reflected in a modernised constitution, would not be colonial in nature. That is what decolonisation would mean for us. I am delighted that this Government policy has obtained unanimous cross party support in the House of Assembly as shown by unanimous resolutions and the fact that Government and Opposition have worked together to thrash out the details of the proposals. We shall know during the first quarter of this year, I think, the outcome of these Constitutional negotiations with the UK.
Similarly, when we arrived in office there was no safe and dignified process of dialogue with Spain on any issue, even simple cross border matters. Indeed, there was no dialogue at all. There had however been failed attempts before 1996 to establish open agenda, trilateral dialogue. When we came to office, and for nine years this Government stood firm in rejecting any dialogue which was structured bilaterally between the UK and Spain. And it is important to remember the reason for that firmness, for such bilateral dialogue constitutes the very denial of our political rights as a people. But we did not camp on a position of rejection of dialogue. Instead we advocated a fair, safe and dignified process of dialogue in which all parties, including Gibraltar, could take part without prejudicing their positions on politically fundamental issues.
This was finally achieved in December 2004 with the establishment of the Trilateral Forum, which has an open agenda, and is not sovereignty focused, in which we take part with our own separate voice on the same basis as UK and Spain, and in which nothing can be agreed unless we specifically agree to it. Gibraltar has never achieved this degree of security and respect in any process of dialogue.
This represents a big achievement, which those who now try to undermine it (without actually openly and clearly opposing it) themselves tried and failed to achieve when they were in office. For example, despite the considerable amount of information publicly provided after each round of talks, and despite knowing that the detail of such international negotiations is necessarily confidential until agreements are nearer, the Opposition complains that the Government provides them with no information. But what is the reality?
Well, since the Trilateral forum was established in December 2004, the Opposition has asked a total of 1907questions in the House of Assembly.
Not a single one of them has been about discussions in the Trilateral Forum.
Also, the Opposition have had 4 opportunities to bring motions to debate those matters in the House and seek information. They have not moved any motions in the House, nor written to me on any such matter.
As I have said on many occasions before, the Trilateral Forum is not engaged in any discussion about Sovereignty or related issues. Spain, the UK and
Gibraltar all maintain their different positions in relation to Sovereignty, and the Gibraltar Government of course maintains its position in relation to our right to self determination, that is the right to freely decide our own future, which is inalienable and Gibraltar will never give up or compromise.
Even though the agenda of issues is extensive and the issues themselves complex, and even though progress is delayed by events and circumstances often outside Gibraltar?s control, I hope that, following a year?s hard work by all parties, agreements will emerge early this year on a number of issues: namely, on expanded use of our airport, on Spanish pensions, on telephones, and on cross border traffic flows. Agreements on these issues will be good generally for Gibraltar, good generally for the people of the neighbouring Campo area of Spain and good for relations between Gibraltar and Spain based on mutual respect.
Does this mean that all problems between us will disappear and that things that should not happen will never happen? Of course it doesn?t. But that is not a reason for not making mutually beneficial, politically safe progress where and when it is possible to do so.
You know, the easiest thing for a Chief Minister to do is to enflame anti-Spanish sentiment, appeal to our rawest nationalist instincts, and make no credible attempt to improve relations with our neighbour. That is easy, but it is not in Gibraltar?s interests and it passes the baton of unresolved problems and unnecessary tension to our children and future generations. That is not leadership, nor is it an adequate vision for our future, nor is it fair or responsible to our children and grandchildren.
Well, it?s not my approach to this job and it?s not what I?m in politics for. I have always regarded it, continue to regard it, and will always regard it as my first and foremost duty to defend, uphold and promote our political rights as a people, our sovereignty, our right to self determination and to prevent others from doing deals affecting the sovereignty or any other aspect of our homeland against our wishes. I hope that you will not think it too forward of me to say that I believe that I and my colleagues in this Government, have demonstrated over recent years that we are both able and willing to do these things sensibly, courageously and successfully ? whatever it takes and wherever it has to be done ? and without undermining our all important economy and social stability in the process.
But that said, done and achieved, I believe that it is the duty of Gibraltar?s political leaders to work to bring as much normality as possible into our lives for the benefit of ourselves and our future generations, and this includes resolving those problems with our neighbours that can be resolved, and it includes establishing the best relations possible with Spain in general, and the Campo and Andalucia in particular, that our serious disagreements will allow.
These things will bring significant improvements to the prosperity and quality of lives of people in Gibraltar and the Campo, without political strings attached to either side. It will resolve problems that affect people on both sides.
There are some people in Gibraltar who appear to believe that Gibraltar is only safe when there is open hostility between Gibraltar and Spain. This is neither sensible, or true or in Gibraltar?s interests, or in anyone else?s. We have to break this psychosis. Some tension is inevitable because of our serious disagreements on fundamental issues and because of certain continuing attitudes towards us in certain quarters of Spain ? but an intelligent and modern conduct of our interests and affairs is one that achieves both defence and promotion of our political rights and aspirations and other interests as a people on the one hand, and the best possible, mutually beneficial relations with our neighbours, Spain on the other hand. I believe that we have demonstrated and are demonstrating that this is both true and possible, and that it is the sensible way forward.
It is in this context that we are negotiating a possible agreement that will allow for expanded use of our airport, which overcomes our exclusion from EU aviation measures and facilitates flights to and from Spain and other destinations. As I have said many times before, we are open to an agreement at a commercial and practical level. To reach any agreement there have to be concessions, or ?give and take? by all sides. However, there can be no concessions on sovereignty, jurisdiction or control of the airport.
Nor will there be Spanish officials present in Gibraltar. None of the parties are seeking to address such issues in these negotiations, which are not about sovereignty. If it emerges, what will emerge is a practical agreement that will make our airport more useful for the social and economic development of people on both sides of the frontier, while fully safeguarding the political interests of all sides.
In a vibrant democracy such as ours, it is inevitable that Oppositions will seek to undermine the record and achievements of Governments. But Gibraltar is a politically astute community which knows how to distinguish between reality and self serving, politically motivated spoiling tactics. And so, despite what you were told, we have a good new bus service. Despite what you were told, we have an enviable, great new hospital. Despite what you have been told the economy and public finance are sound and performing at record levels.
Despite what you were told there has never been more jobs (3000 more) for our youth and for our graduates to come home to? And, in the same way, and despite what you are being told the trilateral forum agreements, if they emerge, will be as good for Gibraltar as they will be good for the people of the Campo area. As with buses, hospitals and so many other things, events which you will be able to judge for yourselves, and not self serving political comments, will establish and prove the reality of the governments achievements and failures.
As I have always done, I will work tirelessly during 2006 to take Gibraltar further forward and improve the quality of life of as many people as possible.
Have a good year. Keep safe and well and enjoy the very many blessings that we have in Gibraltar.