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Oct 18 - The Politics Of The Abortion Command Paper

By Mark Montegriffo

It feels like an age since the Chief Minister accused the GSD of playing the ‘hokey cokey’ when MP Llamas re-joined the official opposition. In that same speech, he turned around the GSD’s main criticism of the government back to the bench opposite – the ‘all things to all men’ charge.

This was most indicative in this week’s spat over the reproductive rights command paper. The GSLP/Liberal administration, afraid of alienating any side, has been resistant to taking a bold stance of principle. Instead, they opted for a diplomatically wise ‘my hands are tied’ narrative.

The Chief Minister has appeared at demonstrations on both sides of the abortion debate, nullifying the effect of his public appearances at demonstrations in the process. Whatever the opinions are of individual ministers of government in respect of this debate, the administration’s line of communication has been unwilling to provide a value-based vision that risks alienating either side.

If it wasn’t for the grassroots pressure that started with the GWA statement (but included Together Gibraltar, No More Shame, and the impactful march over the weekend), the empowerment of women in both sides of the debate, and the Northern Ireland ruling, the whole issue of reproductive rights would’ve likely never come up in 2018. The debate was started by women and, ideally, the final detail of the legislation should be judged by women. They should be the arbiters of whether the command paper is acceptable. The government appears to want to take the path of least resistance. It isn’t just because it wants to be primarily known as the government that sees Gibraltar through the Brexit crisis, but also because it is symptomatic of our politics as a whole to be ‘all things to all men’ for as long as possible.

The GSD has also played this card, though arguably not as tactfully. Initially the leader of the GSD outside parliament and the leader of the GSD inside parliament both favoured a referendum, which the Together Gibraltar movement campaigned for in response to government inaction. Once the movement began its referendum campaign, the GSD dropped any intention of proposing a referendum and communicated that it would give the debate a few months before giving a stance. It’s hard to think of a better way to tell people that you have no idea how to lead on a debate than that.

The months of reflection culminated in a press release that was peak ‘hokey cokey’. It claimed that the command paper was rushed and that the debate on abortion hasn’t actually happened yet, begging the question ‘why did you stall for months to consider the debate if, according to you, there has now not been a debate?’.

The GSD criticized the command paper enough to keep the pro-life side happy but expressed a soft comment on considering a referendum to try to keep a portion of the pro-choice side happy. The GSD leader outside parliament was previously the founder of a ‘progressive’ party, but his leadership of the GSD on this issue is making the current administration look more progressive than Pankhurst. The optics of an all male bench and its every female MP since 2011 having left the party do not help either.

Quite clearly, ideological considerations in Gibraltar politics are secondary. At best, it is a useful mask for a largely unipolar politics that plays it safe. There is good reason for this. Gibraltar is a small place with a small population. Casting your net wide is the best electoral policy. Additionally, if there are only two parties competing for power, it is just a matter of time until you’ll get your side into government. As the logic goes, oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. This revolving door of power means that it is not even necessary to form principled stances and stick by them. Just hold tight for a few electoral cycles and you’ll get your time in the sun, even if you’ve flip-flopped, been a little quiet, or are relatively unpopular at the moment. A complacent politics benefits nobody except for those who are in power (or waiting to get there).

A third party potentially changes that somewhat. Although political movements outside of party structures should be encouraged, it is also vital that our party politics is healthy and competitive. Regardless of one’s thoughts about the new third party, genuine democrats should be excited about what it means for the political landscape. If the new party can capture the progressive demographic that has recently been activated by the abortion debate, then it could mount a serious challenge for the opposition bench in parliament in next year’s elections.

It is fitting that the new party has launched after a democratic vote. Beginning to end the revolving door of power is the first step to a democracy that is less complacent and more willing to engage with the systemic issues it faces, from ones that are rooted in policy frameworks right up to democratic reform itself. The real test will come at election time. For now, the establishment of a new party is a good sign for the future of our democracy, not just because it diversifies the political landscape, but also because it is a chance to break with the complacency that a two horse race enables. 

Mark is a member of Together Gibraltar.

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