Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Labour joining GSD ‘not a merger of equals’

By Dominique Searle

Feetham admits: A merger between the GSD (Gibraltar Social Democrats) and the Labour party “is not going to be a merger of equals”.

Labour Leader Daniel Feetham admits as much in an interview with the Chronicle on his return from accompanying Chief Minister Peter Caruana to the UN Committee of 24 hearing.

Mr Feetham rejects the criticism that Labour’s possible merger with the governing party contradicts his political roots in the GSLP and he criticises Opposition leader Joe Bossano over his insistence on leading the party after repeated failure to win government. “If I felt that the proposed merger would weaken Peter Caruana or his party I would pull the plug on it myself. I do not believe it will and again time will tell,” he says.

Q: This is the third UN Seminar you attend, one alone and these last two with Government. Why?

Irrespective of recent developments I have always thought that it is in Gibraltar’s interest to have a joint delegation at the UN to show unity of purpose at such an important international forum and to speak with one voice, much in the same way as Sir Joshua Hassan and Peter Isola did back in the 1960s.

Q: So then you think Bossano should be in that as well?

Yes. I think that Mr. Bossano, as Leader of the Opposition, is an integral part of any delegation before the UN. I don’t think he should be coming separately to the Chief Minister of the day, whoever that may be. We should be speaking here with one voice. That has always been our policy going back my earliest political statements.

Q: Does Gibraltar's presence here produce results or are we just holding our ground?

There is an element of holding ground. You don’t want to leave the field clear to Spain to make a Gibraltar statement to the Committee without Gibraltar being there.

It is important that the UN listen to Gibraltar’s views and voice first hand so that they know what the strength of feeling is in Gibraltar in relation to this issue.

Having said that over the last two years I think there has been a measure of progress. Although last year there was a statement from the Fourth Committee that did not go as far as we would have liked it to have gone it represented a measure of progress from past statements. This year the Chairman of the Committee of 24 described the Chief Minister’s arguments as “compelling” and hinted strongly at the fact that the Committee may send a delegation to Gibraltar. That is one of the things the Chief Minister has been asking the Committee to do in every single speech he has given over recent years. It represents a public expression of the feelings that a lot of the members feel privately. I have met members of the Committee of 24. Privately they will come up and say that they believe Gibraltar is right. So we have made inroads at the UN and in the future we could make substantial progress.

Q: Are you discussing your merger?

We will discuss this in the coming weeks. We were in New York to put the best case possible for Gibraltar and the merger takes a back seat to the business of seeing the UN listens to Gibraltar.

Q: You started out in politics in Gibraltar joining the GSLP and some people may feel you left it because it was not doing enough to oppose the GSD. How do you marry the move from GSLP to GSD?

When I left the GSLP I would have never have envisaged or contemplated this move now.

I left the GSLP because I thought that a party cannot function effectively by just “kowtowing” to a leader who simply refuses to go whatever the electoral results.

It may be the case that some people in the GSLP around Mr Bossano feel that eventually by a process of political wastage his time will come. But how ridiculous is that, to have to wait three, four or five elections until the party in Government has had its natural political cycle for you to get back into Government. It is absolutely ridiculous. I look back and think that, whatever the difficulties for me politically in the road I chose to take, it was the right move. Time will show that.

Q: Who was the seducer in this relationship, you or Caruana? Where did the opening first come from?

No, this has been a relationship that had developed over time based on trust. You have to remember I have been coming to the UN with the Chief Minister for the last two years. I have also formed part of the Gibraltar delegation on Constitutional talks. It’s a relationship that has grown out of the constructive approach to politics we have always taken. The type of politics we have conducted on tax is an example. Despite being the only political party which proposed our own tax regime, based on a flat, low rate of tax across the board, we were the only party to ask to meet with the Chief Minister to discuss such proposals and the Government’s plans on tax reform.

On the crucial issue of our relationship with Spain the Chief Minister has said his Government would never attend Brussels Talks and we have been the only opposition party to support the tripartite talks which we think is an opportunity Gibraltar cannot afford to ignore.

So I think that, over time, there has been a convergence of policy, a convergence of views and yes trust. In that sort of situation it’s only right that in a small place like Gibraltar that people who think alike and have common policies should be coming together with a common purpose.

Q: Are you moving right or are they moving left?

No, it’s not a question of moving right or left and it is certainly not a change of direction for the Government. I have heard the comment coming from some quarters in the GSLP that I am moving right. But look, it was not Peter Caruana that came out on public television boasting about his privatisation policy and saying that it made Margaret Thatcher look as if she was in kindergarten. It wasn’t Peter Caruana who had one of his people meet a family man returning from a family holiday at the airport with a dismissal letter because that person had refused to break a refuse strike. And it was certainly not Peter Caruana who was caught on tape on the issue of Kvaerner, with all the disastrous consequences some of the views expressed would bring for jobs in the dockyard if they had materialised. In all three cases it was Joe Bossano, the leader of a socialist party. Look at Mr Caruana’s record in office, what he has done for employees in Government-owned companies like SOS. People in SOS were earning £3.50 an hour in 1996; they had no pensions scheme at all. Now they have a private occupation pension scheme. The minimum wage is over £5. Take private practice. This was one of the great social scourges in Gibraltar where somebody aged, infirm or of moderate means would have to wait weeks and weeks, months even, to be treated by a consultant. If you could pay you got treated the next day. That was completely and utterly iniquitous and this Government has been the only one tackle the issue bravely and abolish private practice. That was also a Labour party manifesto commitment.

Q: Yes, but you joined the GSLP after Bossano had been in Government?

No. I was a member since 1980/81 so when I left the GSLP I was a member longer than most.

Q: So you wanted Bossano to leave the party for movement within the GSLP?

I thought that the GSLP, unless it reformed substantially and radically, was doing a huge disservice to the electorate. Central to that disservice was the position of its leader. Think about it. If a leader of a major political party in Europe loses one election he resigns let alone three in a row. I knew that when Mr. Bossano says 12 years he means 12 years. He will stay and then play one pretender to his post against the other. Only two weeks ago he reemphasised that by saying something like “that is three years, now I have eight or nine years left?

Q: So what is happening? Is it a merger or is the GSD absorbing you?

Well it’s certainly not going to be a merger of equals. You cannot expect it to be a merger of equals because you cannot expect a party that is in government and has won the election three times, with over 50% of the popular vote, merging on equal terms with a party that was formed on the 23 May 2002. That is not realistic.

What you have, effectively, is a merger of human resources. It is people with a common goal and common values who have worked together and are looking at common ways in which Gibraltar should be run and at our relations with Spain and Europe.

In such a small place, and with these values, it is right to come together to offer the electorate clear alternatives.

One thing that the Labour party has shown, and recent history has shown, is that, under the current electoral system, a third party will get squeezed. A third party does not have the chance to make a breakthrough in politics.

What do you do? Do you continue waiting in the sidelines for an opportunity to make a substantial political contribution? One that might not come? Politics is about trying to make a difference by shaping events either from government or opposition. If you’re not in the House it is very difficult to do that. And if you look at recent history, the Liberal party (formerly the National party) and other third parties, none have been able to make the crucial breakthrough into the House since 1980. The exception was the GSD at a bye-election where the Government of the day did not field a candidate. If you’re not there you cannot shape events.

Q: If you were sat before the GSD Executive, what would you say to them in terms of what you bring to that party?

It is not a question of bringing things or horse trading or changes of direction.

If you look at politics over the past two years, what has happened? We have worked closely with the Government at the UN, on constitutional reform, on tax – we consulted them and have been kept informed – and you have seen a convergence of policy.

A lot of the policies the Government is pursuing are ones we feel very comfortable with. So with that common agenda it is only natural to come together and say to the electorate that we are bringing them a clear alternative. Because at the next election the alternative, if the merger goes ahead, is going to be that you either vote for Peter Caruana and his record in Government – and, I believe, the stability he has brought on the constitutional front and on the economic and social front has been substantial despite facing enormous difficulties - or Mr. Bossano’s record. It is as simple as that. There is going to be no third party repository for a protest vote at all.

Q: Yes, but given that he has these policies and record, there must also be something in it for him to want you there?

Well, you have to ask him that. All I can do is do what I have always done – speak clearly, provide my opinion on things and make decisions that I believe are right. If I am criticised for this then I am criticised for it. I believe it is a natural progression and I believe Peter Caruana also believes it to be a natural progression. It remains to be seen as to whether this comes through or not. I have to tell you that if I felt that the proposed merger would weaken Peter Caruana or his party I would pull the plug on it myself. I do not believe it will and again, time will tell.

Related Articles:

10 June 2005 - We do not agree nothing can be changed, Bossano tells CM

06 June 2005 - Gibraltar politicians leave for New York

01 June 2005 - Caruana to formally explore merger with Feetham

United Nations Special Committee of 24 on Deconolisation (C24)

Full text of the Chief Minister’s address at the United Nations Committee of 24


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