Extraordinary move leaves Government with nine players when 11 were possible

GBC Editorial Team - Tuesday 25th August

It may seem extraordinary to some that Education Minister Gilbert Licudi should be leaving the Government but not Parliament. It may seem extraordinary that party leader, Fabian Picardo, would have accepted this. Mr Licudi said he has personal reasons. You could hear vulnerability in his voice as he spoke to GBC about “personal sacrifice”. He said Covid has changed his perspective and his priorities, which are now “family time, quality time and a return to legal practice as a lawyer”. But that being the case, he has the option of leaving it all, and focusing on what’s important to him.

It is not uncommon in the UK - but there, of course, you just usher someone else in. And, it is the very reason given as to why there should not be a by-election that points to the need for a by-election. Surely if there’s too much going on to go to the ballot boxes (as the Chief Minister told GBC), that’s precisely why you would need a full team. It’s not as if an election is around the corner - we’re not even a quarter of the way into the term.

The same or different?

Mr Picardo cited the case of Sir Joshua Hassan, who resigned in 1987 before completing his term as Chief Minister. There was a general election just months later.

Since then we have only seen one Government resignation. Peter Montegriffo’s resignation in 1991 gave way to Gibraltar’s first contested by-election, won by the man who would then go on to lead Gibraltar for 15 years: Sir Peter Caruana.

The Deputy Chief Minister, Joseph Garcia, was also granted entry into the then House of Assembly through a by-election.

(With this, we’re trying to highlight the value and local success of by-elections.)

We have, of course, had unusual situations in Parliament. Marlene Hassan Nahon and Lawrence Llamas broke away from their party and continued in Parliament. Yes, they had got in on a GSD ticket, but they were in Opposition. It was more or less business as usual for them. Sir Peter Caruana was a self-appointed backbencher – but, again, in Opposition.

Backbencher with fewer responsibilities & less pay but the same voting power in Parliament

So how will Gilbert Licudi now actually earn his parliamentary salary? Will he be briefed on ministerial developments? Mr Picardo told GBC Mr Licudi will be able to ask questions of the Government, bring members’ motions, and contribute fully to any debate or motion in Parliament from the Government’s benches. He will also be able to vote.

Staying on as a backbencher would see Mr Licudi’s Ministerial salary of £104,000 drop to a regular MP salary of £36,500. He has returned to private practice as a lawyer; he was already back in the Hassans office this morning.

The potential expansion of Parliament has been under discussion since 2014 and one year ago was being floated as an option ahead of the last General Election. Ultimately, following some public backlash, it was decided that there was not enough time to properly inform people about changes to the voting system and to consult widely on the enlargement of Parliament. The GSLP-Liberals then said they would not expand the House without “detailed public consultation”. The promise was made in their latest manifesto, which is silent on the matter of a Government Minister becoming a backbencher.

Is a by-election necessary?

At the General Election on Thursday 17th of October 2019, eligible voters were asked to elect 17 members to the Gibraltar Parliament. Gilbert Licudi placed sixth. There was a strong block vote for him by people who largely voted for the GSLP-Liberal alliance. For this reason, Mr Picardo (also the GSLP Chairman) said there is “no question of him having to relinquish his seat” arguing that although the seat in Parliament is personal, Mr Licudi was effectively elected with the votes of the GSLP.

Speaking yesterday, the Chief Minister said no by-election will take place, stating "we don't need that distraction". Mr Licudi told GBC he didn’t consider the option of a by-election. He says he was elected “on a GSLP ticket”, saying he owes it to the GSLP executive to put it to them to decide whether he should stay on as a backbencher or not.

This view contrasts sharply with the widely-held assumption that yesterday’s resignation would prompt a by-election, at which all eligible voters would have a say. There is a perception of a democratic deficit, with discussions about democracy and parliamentary integrity playing out in offices, over dinner tables and on social media threads.

An unusual announcement at a tricky moment

The announcement itself was unusual: a press conference called at the last minute, with no off-the-record briefing or indication of the subject matter. With zero information, GBC treated the press conference in the same way as we would the many non-COVID press conferences called by the Government: we sent a cameraman and a reporter, instead of broadcasting it live as we did with the regular Covid-19 briefings some weeks back.

The timing, as pointed out by Opposition politicians, raises questions: the Minister for Education leaves a week before schools are due to open, and the position of Minister for Health changes hands as COVID-19 numbers creep up again and the focus intensifies.

Asked about the timing, Mr Licudi told GBC “the timing has nothing to do with the schools”; once the decision was made, he said, his mind was made up and he had to go. He believes there will be continuity as the new Minister (John Cortes) knows the portfolio well. Mr Licudi said the Government had already taken the policy decision on the start of the new school term and it is the Department of Education that is dealing with the practical arrangements.

For his part, Mr Balban candidly told us it was an unusually early reshuffle. He said it was difficult to prove oneself in such a difficult ministry (health) in just 10 months, five of which had been dominated by the pandemic… in which time he said he had worked seven days a week. As to whether he's done a good job, he said he would leave that for people to decide.

Choosing to play with nine

All this will have taken many by surprise.

We’re sure there’s method to the madness but it does pose the question as to why the Government has not chosen a reinforcement – when, by its own admission, things are delayed because of the extra workload.

Having nine rather than 10 Government Ministers will inevitably create more bottlenecks for government departments. Ministers have been criticised for wanting to sign off on everything. Brexit was already delaying the normal business of government. Then Covid came along and slowed things down further. Now the Cabinet’s ability to review and sign off on decisions for government departments has been reduced by another 10%.

Mr Picardo is not keen on a by-election, but there is another way. He could also opt to replace Mr Licudi from within Parliament. In late May, the Chief Minister said he had consulted the Constitution and it was possible for GSD Leader Keith Azopardi to become an additional Minister in a Government of national unity.

This was said in the context of the worst forecasts of Covid-19 coming to pass. But the reality is it's possible – from within the current elected 17 MPs – for there to be 11 Government Minsters. Yet Mr Picardo has now signalled he intends to steer Gibraltar through Brexit, COVID, and every other social and economic challenge he is warning us about not with 11 Government Ministers but with nine. Instead of bolstering his team with an extra player, he plans to play on with one man down.