Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Caruana sets out to demolish ‘cathedral of untruths’

House of Assembly Budget 2005

Chief Minister Peter Caruana, yesterday launched a blistering attack on Opposition criticism of his administration and the way it spends public funds.

In a scathing speech that lasted just over four hours, he adopted a prosecutorial style and moved to systematically dissect and rebut a litany of arguments and claims that had been levelled against the Government by GSLP/Liberal members during their budget interventions.

He summed up the Opposition’s arguments as a “contrived and orchestrated” attempt to undermine anything the government did or said, one that lacked alternative vision and positive ideas.

Mr Caruana dipped frequently into a well-prepared compendium of adjectives and metaphors to put into words the scorn he clearly felt for the GSLP/Liberal contributions to this year’s budget debate. They were, the Chief Minister said, “some of the poorest opposition contributions that I have ever had to hear in this house.” He called them “a diatribe of the absurd”, a “cathedral of denigration” and a “cathedral of political untruths”, among other turns of phrase. He also referred to the opposition’s “Mickey Mouse economics”, its “twisted analysis” and its attempts to “airbrush” its own history.

In a wide-ranging and in-depth speech, Mr Caruana repeatedly accused the Opposition of choosing its facts selectively and of misquoting, misrepresenting and distorting the words of government ministers for its own political ends.

He pounced on opposition claims that both he and his administration lacked credibility, that key areas such as health were in disarray, that public finances were in poor shape and that the GSD (Gibraltar Social Democrats) had achieved nothing in its time in government.

“People know that they criticise everything that the government has done,” Mr Caruana said at one point. “Gibraltar is changing in front of the electorate’s eyes, it is becoming almost unrecognisable, and the honourable members are still saying that the Government hasn’t done anything.”

“The gap is not between what the Government says and reality,” he told the House of Assembly several times through his speech. “The gap is between reality and what they [the members of the Opposition] say.”

Raw Nerve

Mr Caruana devoted about half of his speech yesterday to addressing a long list of claims and accusations made by opposition member Fabian Picardo during his speech to the house last week.

Mr Picardo had accused the Chief Minister of systematic dishonesty and clearly touched a raw nerve when he told the house that Mr Caruana “would be facing prosecution for perjury” if he were speaking in a court instead of parliament.
A furious Mr Caruana reminded the house that a person could only be convicted of perjury if he knowingly told a lie in order to mislead the court. As such, he interpreted Mr Picardo’s words as an accusation that he had intentionally lied to the House of Assembly.

The Chief Minister then picked through Mr Picardo’s speech point by point in an effort to prove it was the Opposition member who was more likely to face charges of perjury if the house were a court of law.

Mr Caruana presented numerous examples. Mr Picardo, for example, had apparently questioned the Chief Minister’s statement that the Government was still paying taxpayers’ for the “rush jobs” of the past, including “the fiasco” of Harbour Views. “Well it is true!” thundered Mr Caruana by way of response. “We have so far…paid out of tax payers’ money – we had to fund it and recover it later - £28.4 million for the repairs of Harbour Views,” he said, before quickly adding that £24.4 million had eventually been recovered from the contractor. “It is ongoing because it still has not finished.” “We are still having to make a start on repairs to the podium which is going to cost that taxpayer £2 million. So by the time we finish with the podium, which is the last element of the Harbour Views fiasco, it will have cost the tax payer £6 million more than it was eventually able to recover.”

He also referred to Mr Picardo using the housing scheme on the North Mole as an example of how the government did not act on its political commitments. Even though Mr Caruana had promised the start of construction by February this year, Mr Picardo had said that as of June, “nothing had happened” on the North Mole. “Except that the honourable member’s statement is not true,” Mr Caruana told the house yesterday.

“It is not true to say that nothing has happened, or has he not been to the site? It is true that the buildings have not started to go up vertically, but it is not true that nothing has happened since February. He must have been there, he must have seen the site being taken possession of, he must have seen the site being cleared, he must have seen bore hole trials being done on the foundations, he must have seen a degree of preparatory work being done.”

The construction process, Mr Caruana said, involved much more than simply laying bricks one on top of another in a row. “If he had said that progress of construction was not as quick as was envisaged, that might be true,” he said.

“But if he chooses to say that nothing has happened, I regret to tell him that that is factually not true.”

The Chief Minister, however, conceded that negotiations with the contractor had broken down and that the government was now “talking to another one.”

Taxing Matters

In his opening budget speech last Thursday, Mr Caruana had told the house that the GSD administration had reduced taxes on individuals by 40%.

Mr Picardo had told the house that this was “just a diversion” and that taxes had not been cut, presenting this as further evidence that Mr Caruana was not to be believed.

Yesterday, the Chief Minister insisted that since 1996, the year the GSD came into power, taxes had been cut by “more than 40%”.

He detailed a long list of new tax allowances that had been introduced since then, pointed to taxes that had been abolished in that time and highlighted the changes to the taxation bands that his government had introduced. “The overall effect of the new allowances, the remodelling of the thresholds, the abolition of taxes compared to the practices that went on before, is that people have had their tax bills reduced by more than 40% compared to what would have been the case had we not taken any of these steps,” Mr Caruana said. He said the opposition’s definition of tax cuts was based on the “absurd” premise that a person whose salary had increased since 1996 and who was paying more tax now than nine years ago, had therefore not benefited from a 40% tax cut. “That is not what is meant by tax cuts,” Mr Caruana said. “What is meant by tax cuts is that, but for the tax cutting, they would be paying even more tax than after the tax cutting.”

The Chief Minister’s explanation on taxes drew chuckles from the opposition bench, and a swift rebuke from Mr Caruana himself. “I very much doubt if the people of Gibraltar listening to this debate think that it’s funny,” he said.

“They think it’s funny because they are irresponsible, because they do not care about the truth and because they do not care about what they say about other people.

And they will be caught out by the electorate. Between now and the next election, they will succeed in persuading the electorate that they should be overlooked a fourth time in a row.”

Failed Chief Minister?

The response to Mr Picardo’s speech went on for over two hours and covered a lot more ground before Mr Caruana reached a crescendo of contempt for the GSLP/Liberal member. Of all the criticism that had been levelled against him by the opposition, Mr Caruana would only recognise – as he had already done last week – a “policy failure” on the issue of affordable housing.

Mr Picardo had called Mr Caruana “a failed Chief Minister caught out” and had urged him to pack his bags. But there was an awkward fact for the opposition underlying all of Mr Caruana’s speech, one that the GSLP/Liberals could not ignore and one that the Chief Minister, in closing his address, made sure to highlight.

“This failed Chief Minister is the first Chief Minister that has taken his party to three electoral victories in a row, each of them with more than 50% of the electoral vote and each of them with his eight candidates occupying the first eight slots on the ballot paper. It has never been done by anybody before, except this failed Chief Minister.

A failed Chief Minister is an ex one like the one that he [Mr Picardo] has sitting next to him – the honourable Leader of the Opposition [Joe Bossano] – who managed, defying almost the laws of statistical gravity, to lose a 73% electoral inheritance from his first term in four years.

A failed Chief Minister is one who loses three lections on the trot and promptly announces that he plans to stay for another 12 years.”

He advised Mr Picardo to pay more attention to “this failed Chief Minister”, referring to himself, and “less to the failures of his revered leader”.

Defending GSD Spending

Earlier in his speech, Mr Caruana had presented a robust defence of his government’s spending policies in a somewhat complex rebuttal of points raised by Joe Bossano, the GSLP/Liberal leader.
He said that falling government budget surpluses were in line with his administration’s policy of investment, expanding and improving public expenditure, and reducing personal taxation.

Except for one financial year where the government had “overshot” the balance, “what we have delivered is exactly what we said we would deliver…almost with uncanny financial precision.”

And he said that the government had dramatically opened up public accounts to scrutiny by the House of Assembly. Mr Caruana said the GSD had “reconstructed public finances to remove the secrecy to which he [Mr Bossano] had systematically subjected them” and that “he now has the gall to accuse us of misleading this house when we put information in front of it which he took pride in depriving this house of.”

Health Matters

Mari Montegriffo, opposition member responsible for health, was not in the chamber when Mr Caruana began his response to her address of last Monday, though she came in shortly after he started (only to pop out, then back in, then back out, then back in…).

Mr Caruana had himself not been present to hear her deliver Monday’s speech live, though he confessed to having listened to it avidly on the radio in his office. He said he did not “have the stamina” to go through Ms Montegriffo’s speech point-by-point – her address was almost as long as his own yesterday - but spent quite some time on it in any case.

He slammed the way that Ms Montegriffo focused on isolated incidents – “a mishmash, a hotchpotch” - to try to create a negative picture of the Gibraltar Health Authority as a whole, without accepting that many positive changes had also been achieved.

Perhaps his fiercest criticism was reserved for what he saw as the GSLP/Liberal’s tendency to blame Government ministers personally for those incidents, without offering any sort of positive ideas beyond that.

It was evidence, he said, of a “pathological inability” to withhold criticism.
According to the Opposition, “everything the government does is wrong,” he said.

He attacked Ms Montegriffo’s claim that the new hospital had brought “no benefits at all” and said that the public no longer believed her statements.

“It’s not a credible, sincere, believable political discourse, and yet that is what she tries to get the people of Gibraltar to swallow year after year,” Mr Caruana said.

And the Rest…

The Chief Minister’s reaction to the remaining opposition budget speeches largely echoed a similar sentiment.

He reiterated, for example, the acknowledgement that the government had reacted slowly to the need for affordable housing and that this was, in effect, a “policy failure.” But he also said that it was better than the opposition’s own record in this context, particularly in rental homes.

And after outlining the government’s other housing-related work, including its programme to refurbishment existing estates, he added: “It is important to bear in mind that performance in housing has dimensions wider than just houses for purchase and houses for rent.”

On education, he rubbished, once again, opposition arguments and highlighted “a huge increase” in spending within this area.

On tourism, he explained that that drop in coach visitors to Gibraltar had come against a similar parallel slump in Spain, and not a boom as the opposition had claimed.

“If tourists come to Gibraltar it’s not to the government’s credit, but if they don’t, it’s the government’s fault,” he said as he summed up his view of the opposition’s policy in this context.

Related Articles:

Full text of Budget Speech by the Chief Minister The Hon Peter Caruana QC to the House of Assembly on 23rd June 2005

Full text of Budget Speech response by Joe Bossano GSLP / Liberal Alliance Opposition Leader to the House of Assembly on 23rd June 2005

27 June 2005 - Mixed reaction to Budget measures

24 June 2005 - Budget “another wasted opportunity” says Reform Party


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