There was an inescapable hint of change in the Gibraltar Parliament this week as five new parliamentarians took their seats for the first time.
The GSD’s Roy Clinton, Marlene Hassan Nahon, Trevor Hammond, Elliot Phillips and Lawrence Llamas were all smiles as they sat on the Opposition bench alongside party leader Daniel Feetham and Edwin Reyes.
From the outset, the newcomers were keen to stamp their mark. Their eagerness provided a stark contrast to the last few sessions of the previous parliamentary term. There were times back then when Opposition leader Daniel Feetham was lucky to have two MPs to back him in the chamber during question time. Faced with a full bench on the government side, it was often a sorry sight. By comparison this week, the new Opposition line-up was positively champing at the bit.
It was evident from the outset. Mr Clinton, the GSD’s numbers man, opened the show and delivered a battery of focused supplementary questions probing the cost of the Gibraltar Music Festival. The figures were not ready yet, so he will have to wait for his answers. But his intervention set the tone and the others followed suit, jumping in to ask supplementary questions – not just on their own themes but those of their colleagues too – and delivering a lively, productive session.
It will take time for the new MPs to find and refine their own style. In doing so, they should take care not to slip into bad habits. At times during the session, some of them seemed to forget they were there to ask questions, not deliver speeches. But then, there are veteran MPs on the government side who are guilty of that too. Just ask the Speaker.
Vigorous parliamentary opposition should not be seen as anything out of the ordinary. It is, after all, normal fare anywhere else. But 2015 had proved difficult for the GSD’s parliamentary team, with one MP after another stepping back from the front line. In terms of numbers if nothing else, it had been a long time since the Opposition bench was as well manned as it was this week.
Let us be clear about one thing though: The GSD is on the back foot after its crushing defeat at the last general election. Mr Feetham himself has acknowledged this. He recognises that the party has to rebuild its links with the community and accepts that most of his MPs have yet to gain valuable parliamentary experience. That is a process that will take time. The GSD’s challenge is to regroup and narrow the gap in the four years to the next election. The party is not yet out of the woods. But this week, as it questioned the government on subjects ranging from same-sex marriage to the case of the dead Filipino sailor, the Opposition showed more signs of life in parliament than it had in months.
On the other side, the government is starting its new term in office from a position of strength having secured a robust mandate from the community last November. Government ministers were clearly being patient in this week’s opening rounds in Parliament. On more than one occasion, they could probably have delivered tougher blows but chose not to. But privately, there is no complacency on the government bench. As one seasoned minister confided, close scrutiny and a little tension in parliamentary politics keeps everyone on their toes. It also makes for better government.
Time will tell how this new parliament develops in the months ahead. For now though, the addition of five new voices has changed the tempo of political discourse, both in and out of the chamber. And that can only be a good thing for the community as whole.