Gibraltar has been transformed by economic interests that have “permeated the spheres of power” and replaced conviction politics with the pursuit of wealth, to the exclusion of many in society, Independent MP Marlene Hassan said yesterday.
In a wide-ranging speech to Parliament, Ms Hassan Nahon, who leads the Together Gibraltar party, acknowledged Gibraltar was “strong and vibrant”, but said hard decisions were being ducked because of a lack of political courage to address issues that were “inherently wrong”.
The Independent MP told Parliament that the government had “lost any sense of priority” and was “way out of touch” with the average members of the community.
She said that while the government was trumpeting Gibraltar’s economic success, people were coming to her complaining about stagnant wages, rising living expenses and precarious working conditions.
Ms Hassan Nahon, the daughter of former Chief Minister of Gibraltar Sir Joshua Hassan, said Gibraltar should return to a time in which Gibraltarians “spoke with one voice and a single agenda”.
“Economic interests, coming from near and far, have permeated the spheres of power and created a Gibraltar that many in this community have trouble recognising,” she said.
“This new vision for Gibraltar appears to have pushed to one side that all-encompassing political agenda in favour of luxury developments and unbridled economic growth, albeit an economic growth that very rarely trickles down the average citizen.”
“In the process, we are dilapidating our most scarce and valuable resource – our limited space – and our general quality of life.”
“Most people in this community today recognise that this economic model has brought disruption, pollution, congestion and discomfort to their lives, and fail to see the profits of the trade-off.”
“Many of our constituents begin to envisage a Gibraltar cluttered with high rise buildings, luxurious marinas, and fancy real estate developments – with all that they bring – and they are far from enamoured by this vision.”
“There can be no progress without provisions for equality, sustainability and the happiness of our people. No economic development merits the deterioration of our quality of life.”
Addressing the budget session of Parliament, Ms Hassan Nahon urged greater transparency from government in the way it handled public finances and its use of government-owned companies for capital projects.
“There is great anxiety within our business community that due to this lack of transparency it is possible that our public finances are not being managed responsibly,” she said.
She questioned delays in publishing the annual accounts of publicly-owned companies, not least because many of them were “big players and doing business in the private sector”.
“Some of these government-owned companies are estimated to be turning over millions in revenue and expenditure,” she said.
“We, the public, have a right to know, given that the companies are owned by the people of Gibraltar.”
She raised questions too about the tender process and said there were concerns that many of the larger tenders were being allocated “to the usual suspects”.
In common with the GSD, she said many in the community were worried about the rate of growth in the public sector and the cost to the public purse.
Not only that, the gap between the public sector and the private was constantly widening, which in turn would have a long term knock-on impact on employment prospects in many areas of the economy.
“The average wage in the public sector is now 50% higher than that in the private sector,” she said.
“And the public sector has much better conditions of work to boot.”
“The aspirations therefore for many of our youth are now to become government employees.”
“This culture of expectation does not bode well for the entrepreneurial spirit that Gibraltar has always had.”
And she added: “It will detract from a longer-term vision that is required for the prudent management of our economy, because inflating the public sector at the expense of the private sector will only create an economic dependency which in the long run is simply unsustainable.”
Ms Hassan Nahon said that what was needed was not austerity, but rather rationalisation of government spending and investment in key areas.
She was critical too of “backdoor privatisation” in the public sector, which she said was damaging morale and impacting on services.
And she raised the plight of pensioners too, adding that “a more supportive stance” was needed in this area, including more consultation with those affected.
“It is an absolute ethical necessity that the promises made to our elderly on this issue are honoured,” she said.
On housing, she said a lack of investment on affordable rental accommodation meant many hard-working people were unable to rent or buy a decent home.
“Despite calls by industry experts in housing, there is a massive shortfall in the stock of affordable rental accommodation, and those in need of these affordable homes are finding themselves squeezed out of a housing market that is plagued with bad practices and is becoming severely bloated and ineffective,” Ms Hassan Nahon said.
The Independent MP said new construction and reclamation projects were aimed mainly at “the privileged class” and failed to take into account the most needy members of the community.
She questioned too whether affordable housing schemes were genuinely within the grasp of average home buyers, given the high prices they were being sold at.
“At present, anyone who sees the price tags of ‘affordable housing’ and believes they are in fact affordable, is way out of touch with the reality of working class Gibraltarians.”
Underpinning the entirety of her speech was a call for change across key areas of Gibraltar’s day to day affairs.
She called, for example, for “a bolder vision” for Gibraltar’s economy, one that ensured that Gibraltar was not solely reliant on a small number of key sectors, but rather diversified sufficiently to withstand sudden change.
That included a strategic plan in the tourism sector, where “not enough is being done”.
On health issues, she said morale at the Gibraltar Health Authority was “the worst…in recent history”, fuelled by “the exploitation of agency workers” and illustrated by protests and “high-profile tribunals”.
“Instead of investing on building our own self-sufficiency, we are throwing away tax payers’ money across the border to replace our lack of foresight, and putting our short-staffed workforce under immense stress and suboptimal practices,” she said.
She raised questions too about the GHA’s investment in managers and said it had failed to put in place a robust mechanism to ensure adequate standards were met.
“The problem here is mis-distributed increases in personnel, too many captains, with questionable demeanours, trying to run a hospital to the ground by exploitative staffing levels, zero-hour contracts via agency workers who’s bosses are massively enriching themselves, and relying more and more on our neighbours instead of investing on our health service,” she said.
Ms Hassan Nahon, whose party has campaigned for a change in abortion laws, refrained from comment on that sensitive subject, saying she would reserve her views for the forthcoming debate on draft legislation.
“I hope we can continue to treat women’s sexual health as a women´s healthcare issue, where we will eventually learn as a society that not having pro-choice legislation does not actually stop abortions, but only stops safe abortions, and stigmatises those who want to exercise this thoroughly recognised human right,” she said.
She repeated her party’s well-known stance on drugs, insisting that what was needed was a wholesale, holistic reform of the way Gibraltar responded to people suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
The aim should be less on a punitive approach on more on healthcare and the welfare of the addict, creating effective pathways that enabled them to reinsert into society as productive citizens.
“It is easy for politicians to engage in “get tough” rhetoric,” she said.
“But how we keep people from getting involved with crime, how we rehabilitate and punish those who do get involved is too important to be left to party political games.”
“My party will look to establish a commission – with experts, and involvement from civil society – to examine the issues of parole, sentencing, rehabilitation and crime prevention in a holistic way, and to advise Parliament.”
Ms Hassan Nahon also had tough words for the government on the education portfolio.
“This electoral cycle has possibly been one of the most stressful, disenchanting and disruptive periods for teachers and for students in a very long time,” she said.
“Although there are things for which Government must be credited, there are grave and concerning issues that have surfaced during this electoral cycle that cannot be ignored.”
Ms Marlene Hassan-Nahon said that much of the discontent stemmed from the government’s decision to “ignore teachers” and “bulldoze” its plans.
While the investment in schools was to be welcomed, she said the government’s ‘education revolution’ should be properly scrutinised in order to properly measure whether it had been effective.
“Many are asking themselves whether such an ambitious project needed to be undertaken in such a short period of time at the expense of the quality of teaching and learning in our schools,” she said.
From co-education to security, teachers’ salaries to the location of the new secondary schools, Ms Hassan Nahon said the concerns of parents were “very real” and could not be ignored.