|by LEO OLIVERO
There are people like me who are rightly asking whether Gibraltar is experiencing political minimalism. Below the sometimes (and I am sad to say) shallow surface of the local political debate that is too often animated and regularly confrontational, there appears to be a lack of political substance, particularly how politicians intend to address the major issues that will challenge our society in the years to come.
I have seen clear evidence of this, particularly during the past ten years, and especially in one area of social life that is spiralling-out-of-control. The ‘substance abuse problem’ has already killed many, and also taken over countless people’s lives, and at the same time affected corresponding family units. This serious situation has played havoc not only with our social services and their ability to tackle this complex issue, but with society as a whole.
If you also consider the level of crime attributed to substance abuses which keeps on recording yearly increases, this last year alone, crime shot up again another 13% with over 75% of crime related to drug usage.
Unfortunately substance abuse is one, of quite a few serious social problems, that have fallen prey to political minimalism. Even though over recent years, the previous government appeared to agree that this problem was there, yet never rushed to do anything concrete or effective about it!
New Parliamentary Format
The New Administration introduced a new format of bringing the government to account, by way of monthly questions and answers meetings. Yet, I am far from convinced, that the idea behind the frequency of these sessions have in no way, been met yet. Because it very much appears again, that parliament is quite capable of debating political trivialities until the cows come home, but shy away from debating strategies that will make us a better nation. And, likewise fail to address the issues that threaten the wellbeing of our society. This to me is political minimalism and probably at its worst!
I often think that there is this shallow surface of the local political debate that is often animated and frequently confrontational. There is also a lack of political substance that has been clearly exposed again and this, after only two sessions of the new parliamentary Q & A sessions.
Just how is the electorate to know, how our parliamentarians intend to address those major and important issues that will challenge our society in the next five to ten years, when they spend ‘political quality time’ (if you can call it that) in parliament in deep debate, arguing, insulting and point scoring.
When you also consider that these monthly question and answer sessions was introduced I imagine, ‘to advance democracy and improve the efficiency of parliament.’
But judging by the performance, particularly of the GSD Opposition, who appear to have come to these meetings with their ‘own definition of a parliamentary Q & A session’ and one, that will not improve democracy or parliament's effectiveness, but will only anchor the whole process down, and with it those many important issues that the electorate would like to see discussed or raised across the parliamentary floor.
In fact, I am not convinced that the GSLP/Liberal Government actually made the right move in introducing the monthly Q & A format so soon into their governmental tenure (even if it was a manifesto commitment) this without giving the decision some thought, particularly as to the system or parliamentary procedures involved in having these increased frequency of these type meetings, and importantly how they should be conducted.
Standing Orders and Parliamentary Procedures!
Standing Orders are written rules under which Parliament conducts its business. They regulate the way Members behave, Bills are processed and debates are organised.@@@In fact Erskine May is the authoritative guide to parliamentary procedures, the guide named Sir Thomas Erskine May’s ‘Treatise on Law, Privileges and Usage of Parliament’. Thomas May was Clerk of the House of Commons between 1871 and 1886. His guide is regularly updated and commonly known as “Erskine May”
Similarly to other parliamentary jurisdictions that follow the Westminster model, Gibraltar parliamentary procedures in relation to question-time is also governed by what I thought, were also strict rules! Although from what I have witnessed so far from the first two Q & A sessions this year, these strict rules are as flexible as box of bungee-jump cord or rope.
Rules governing question time
The right to ask questions in parliament is governed by the following rules:
As to the interpretation of which the Speaker shall be the sole judge
• Not more than one subject shall be referred to in any one question and a question shall not be of excessive length;
• a question must not publish any name or statement not strictly necessary to make the question intelligible; if a question contains@@@a statement, the Member asking it shall make himself responsible for the accuracy of the statement;
• a question shall not contain any argument, inference, imputation, epithet, or ironical expression;
• a question shall not refer to any debate that has occurred or answer that has been given within the preceding six months;
• a question shall not be asked about proceedings in a Committee which have not been reported on to the Parliament;
• a question shall not ask for an expression of opinion, or for the solution of an abstract legal question or of a hypothetical proposition;
• a question shall not be asked as to the character or conduct of any persons except in his official or public capacity;
• a question reflecting on the character or conduct of any person whose conduct can only be challenged on a substantive motion may not be asked;
• a question making or implying a charge of personal character shall be disallowed;
• a question fully answered shall not be asked again during the same meeting;
• a question shall not seek information about any matter which is of its nature secret
Some of these rules have not been adhered to during the first two monthly Q & A meetings, that's my opinion.
I also firmly believe that at the moment, and looking at the way I and others see things, that parliament is not serving its purpose of holding the government to account in the most efficient and effective manner, particularly as prescribed by its own parliamentary rules and standing orders. In fact, if this is allowed to continue deep into the life of this legislature then we could be going backwards and not forward!
Parliamentary Reform Cannot Come Quick Enough!
Parliamentary reforms in this respect cannot come quick enough. Although it will be in my view a good 18 months or 2 years before any parliamentary reform sees the light of day.
I have given quite a lot of thought to the way local politics is going and I have to say, people do not like what they see, particularly in the manner the new parliament has started to discuss Gibraltar’s affairs. The electorate really wants to know the different strategic directions proposed by our political parties that need to go beyond the "what-you-can-do-I-can-do-better" which is also a brake on progression and political effectiveness and a shallow attitude that seems to characterise today's political debate.
Just look at last week’s parliament when during the first 3 hours of question time it took the opposition nearly 3 hours to pose some 21 questions before everything grinded to a halt on some innocuous issue.
Gibraltar very often suffers from its small size. We are the size of a small European town, and yet we are a nation that practically has to plan its own destiny.
A Healthier Political Climate requires a genuine appreciation of openness and a sincere commitment to truth! At the same time, there also exists a crucial need to ensure that dialogue is invariably authentic and sincere. This implies, on the one hand, mutual acceptance of differences or, even, of contradictions and, on the other, respect for decisions freely made according to one’s conscience. In this way, the authorities and the people, political parties and the media will be able to contribute actively to the consolidation of a healthy, open and respectful political environment.
Political moderation benefits everyone. Let's work for it today for a better tomorrow for Gibraltar’s younger and future generations.