by Jeremy Sacramento
There are occasions in our political history when constitutional reform is on the table, and, despite all else, not least barrel loads of uncertainty, Brexit has placed reform firmly on the table. This is not uncommon. Previous constitutional reforms have taken place against the backdrop of international developments (e.g. the reforms of the 1960’s during the height of tensions with Spain and the 2006 Constitution which followed hot on the heels of the joint-sovereignty proposals). What is clear is that in the current scenario, with a dangerously confident PP salivating at the prospect of gaining a foothold, there is call for greater debate on Gibraltar’s future.
The unfortunate reality is that there is a vacuum in representative political debate. For this reason, more than ever now, Gibraltar should have the benefit of more members of parliament in the form of backbenchers. To dispel any misconceptions, a backbencher is a member of parliament that does not carry ministerial or shadow ministerial responsibilities. These additional members would widen representation from a platform that is free from the shackles of frontbench collective responsibility.
Yet the benefits reaped from backbenchers does not stop at the obvious greater representation, importantly backbenchers would furthermore: (i) balance the level of the Executive’s control of Parliament; (ii) facilitate the setting-up of Select Committees; (iii) facilitate the emergence of new political parties and independents, and therein also gain greater plurality of representation; and (iv) ensure greater scrutiny of individual Ministers. I will elaborate on each of these in turn below.
For starters, the current configuration in parliament invariably hinders accountability given that the executive arm of parliament always has an in-built majority. The introduction of backbenchers would immediately rectify the democratic deficiencies that result from executive control of parliament. Of course, whipping systems would be in place to ensure same-party backbenchers do not rebel on important issues. However the whipping process in-of-itself also adds greater accountability and scrutiny as frontbenchers necessarily have to promote and negotiate their position with their backbenchers.
In fact, the Government used its executive majority to put-down the Opposition’s motion on the setting up of a Public Accounts Committee (PAC). It echoed the Democratic and Parliamentary Reform Commission in its 2013 report, in rejecting the proposal to setup a PAC on the grounds that it had failed to work before. Not only did the Commission appear to confuse Standing (General) and Select Committees, but their conclusions on this point were incredulous. It concluded that: (i) because the PAC concept failed in 1980/84, for the reason of potential animosity amongst cabinet colleagues, it is presently unworkable; (ii) because public accounts are already scrutinised in parliamentary debates, a PAC would be redundant. This second point completely ignores the most obvious benefits that select committees bring to parliamentary democracy: the power to question civil servants and solicit external expert input. Which makes the argument for backbenchers, as the sole means to attain this valuable mechanism, all the stronger. That is, backbenchers would in one swoop eradicate the obstruction of animosity, as cabinet members would no longer be in a position to sit on the committee.
With the greater selection of candidates at the ballot, the electorate would more easily be persuaded to break their block vote and perhaps vote for 10 candidates of their preferred party (to ensure their ability to form government) and the remaining spare votes to an alternative party or independents. This would immediately facilitate the emergence of new political parties and individuals giving rise to greater plurality of representation and debate. A key ingredient in breaking the ‘ping-pong’ effect and, quite frankly, stagnant nature of political exchanges currently stifles our parliament.
Finally, the introduction of backbenchers would also be particularly beneficial to ensuring ministerial competence. Whereas currently a member of government is guaranteed ministerial responsibility irrespective of competence once in the job, as other democracies, government backbenchers could be called to replace any non-performing ministers.
I hope these points serve as an important first step in reviving the debate on backbenchers, and indeed form part of the overall constitutional reforms that will ensue. I therefore call on the powers-that-be to re-examine this issue and proceed to implement it, particularly in this defining moment of our history when more and not less debate is called for.