Restraint. That’s one of the things chief minister Fabian Picardo has requested from teachers in their ongoing pay dispute with the government. Their claim dates back to last June but they still haven’t had a formal response. A deadline of Thursday 9 May set by their union, the NASUWT, came and went with neither an acceptance of the demands nor a counter offer. In a letter to the NASUWT president that same evening Mr Picardo essentially said he needed more time to consider the matter.
Yet earlier that day there was time for a meeting of the parliamentary reform select committee that the chief minister chairs. It hadn’t met for over four and a half years and it was only after the Gibraltar Chronicle had revealed it that anyone had any inkling it was about to meet again. According to one of its members the meeting lasted only 45 minutes.
Long enough, nevertheless, to conclude discussions on the “expansion of the Gibraltar Parliament” and come up with a radical recommendation: an increase in the number of MPs from 17 to 25 through the creation of eight “backbenchers”, five on the government’s side and three on the opposition’s. The intention is to pass the necessary legislation in time for the next election. The GSLP/Liberals and the GSD must have had a pretty good idea this would be the outcome, as almost simultaneously with the publication of the committee’s recommendation they issued press statements welcoming the initiative.
Only independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon did not. Herself a committee member, she decried a lack of consultation and warned that backbenchers would not have “a quantitative or qualitative impact on the level of democracy in Gibraltar”. She’s not alone in thinking it’s a bad idea.
In 2013 the Commission on Democratic and Political Reform stated that: “there should not be an increase in the number of elected members, since 17 Members in a place of our size are quite enough”. It said the additional expenditure was “unwarranted”, notwithstanding that what was being mooted was just two backbenchers.
How much eight backbenchers would cost the taxpayer is an, as yet, unanswered question. (£200,000 a year Ms Hassan Nahon reckons). There are others. Would they be entitled to a pension as “frontbench” MPs are? On polling day would people vote separately for frontbench and backbench candidates or would who becomes what be determined by how many votes each candidate gets? Would backbenchers have full voting rights in parliament?
A more fundamental question still is why have backbenchers in the first place? Unlike their UK counterparts, they would have no constituents to represent. Neither would they have ministries to run nor shadow portfolios to look after. What then would be their purpose?
The chief minister says that with backbenchers our parliament would more closely resemble the House of Commons: there’d be more ordinary MPs than members of the Executive. This, he suggests, would improve democracy because it makes it easier for the government to be outvoted. But, given the tribal nature of our politics, how realistic is it that even one backbencher on the government side would rebel? Not very I’d say, and three of them would have to in order to defeat the government.
Democracy could be enhanced, in my view, if at least some of the backbenchers were independents, able to speak their minds, unfettered by a party whip. But it’s clear that the path isn’t going to be made any easier for independent candidates to get elected. As Mr Picardo says: “people will understand that they need to continue to block vote in order to have a government of the party political nature they wish to see, with the backbenchers being additional representatives of that party”. Plus ça change.
Let’s hope the real motivation here isn’t, as has been suggested, to reward party stalwarts who’ve never made it onto an electoral slate. Against a backdrop of the teachers’ pay claim and concerns expressed by the Action on Poverty group, the last thing Gibraltar needs is eight political sinecures.