Leader Of The Opposition Keith Azopardi's New Year Message 2023
Below follows the Leader of the Opposition’s New Year Message:
As we greet 2023 it’s time for a new way of doing things.
Gibraltar is immersed in a number of challenges; more are on the horizon and many people are suffering because of the handling of our public finances.
The approach to those issues needs to be radical and progressive.
We need a new way of doing things; a better way of running our public services; a break with the reckless and unaccountable handling of our public finances; a robust tackling of waste, abuse and corruption; a health & care system that works in all its aspects; housing for those in need; a sustainable future with quality of life for our people; dignified employment and opportunities for all.
How Gibraltar is taken forward will be in your hands this year. Not since 1996 have there been such starkly contrasting views of how to govern Gibraltar. Not since 1996 has your choice been this important because of where we find ourselves as a community. Not since 1996 has the very fabric of our Gibraltar, our sustainability and our future been at stake.
And that is for four simple reasons.
Firstly, there has never been a deficit in our public finances this big and the Government shows no signs of getting it under real control. The Government is running at a loss – last year of £2M a week. It had to borrow £100M just to help it pay wages and even when it was raising taxes, fees and charges. This year it is on track to borrow £75M more to cover the hole. The Government has no serious plan to get out of this crisis.
Secondly Mr Picardo has been willing to preside over a deeply opaque financial structure where hundreds of millions of your pounds are unaccountably dealt with and where waste, abuse and corruption are insufficiently controlled or tolerated. That cheats you and Gibraltar to the benefit only of a privileged few.
Thirdly in the slipstream of all that many people are being left behind and feel abandoned by this Government when they have important mental health, housing, care, special needs or employment issues. That’s because the Government is inefficient and cannot deal with these concerns properly. Public services need to be reformed and modernised. The promised e-government revolution has failed miserably. And of course, starved of further money because of the financial crisis the breakdown of services is just getting worse.
Fourthly this is a Government of spin, smoke and mirrors and lies. Where nothing is what it seems. A Government that arrogantly says they are the only ones who can get a BREXIT deal and yet only have a persistent track record of failure and concessions
to show for it. The Government cannot now be believed or trusted to lead us into the future.
We cannot afford four more years of this.
The Chief Minister’s New Year Message was high on excuses for failures but very low on substance. He warned that COVID should not be ignored in assessing the state of public finances when no-one is actually saying it should. The problem is that Mr Picardo thinks he can use the COVID period to airbrush the historic mismanagement of our public finances away – as if it had not happened. We are unwilling to let him get away with that distorted presentation of the facts.
We were already £1.3 Billion in debt before the COVID pandemic arrived. They had already massively increased our public debt taking us to the financial brink well before the first lockdown.
So when he says that we are in the current precarious financial position because of COVID it is simply untrue. In fact we are in this crisis because the public finances were not handled in the way he promised when he was elected in 2011.
If he has changed Gibraltar’s debt profile over the last 12 years it is only to plunge us deeply into the red. After all he made a solemn electoral promise to you in 2011 to halve the gross public debt which existed then. He told you then – that it was that spiral of debt that would lead us to ruin.
12 years on he has almost quadrupled the gross debt instead of halving it. He has increased the gross debt of Gibraltar by £1.3 billion pounds with the vast bulk of that happening well before COVID.
If public finances had been managed prudently before COVID we would have had more leeway to meet the financial impact of the last three years and tax increases or pay freezes may not have been necessary. That’s why you have less money in your pocket to face the cost of living crisis.
This Government cannot be trusted on our public finances. Not only have they massively increased debt they have parked hundreds of millions of pounds behind opaque companies without telling you if monies have been spent and what money is left. This is your money – not theirs. Those practices will continue if they are re-elected. They will be emboldened to go to frightening new heights.
Worse still there is an air of recklessness that pervades the handling of your money with waste, abuse and insufficient controls to prevent corruption. There is cronyism, trafficking of influences and conflicts of interests that are corroding the governance systems, cheating Gibraltar and impoverishing our democracy.
Our democracy is made poorer still when there is a fear of speaking out and a Government that deploys your resources to squash its critics mercilessly.
And when have we ever had to have a public inquiry to determine why a Commissioner of Police was asked to retire by the Chief Minister in circumstances where the former Commissioner says democracy was at stake.
Last January a decision not to proceed with a criminal prosecution was filed by the Attorney General in a high-profile case involving Government contracts and a company in which persons close to the Chief Minister had an ultimate beneficial interest. I told the Attorney General then that the effect of that decision was that facts that were politically damaging to the Chief Minister were being buried.
All those are examples of why we need a new way.
This is a Government that talks big but has run out of any original reforming zeal. They have got too comfortable in power. They have lost sight of whose money it is, whose streets they are and for whom they govern.
This is a Government that cannot get the small things right. If they cannot clean the streets and estates, deliver a well-maintained cemetery and mortuary or simple answers to people who wait patiently for follow-up on care, housing or mental health how can they be trusted on the big things – like the major task of fixing the financial crisis.
The post Brexit negotiations lie unresolved creating continued uncertainty for our economy and all our citizens. We want a safe and beneficial agreement to emerge. We offered our help to Mr Picardo but that offer was rejected. The 2019 election was held 17 days before the then BREXIT deadline. Mr Picardo told you then that he should be re-elected to finish the job and land a deal. And yet here we are almost 4 years later. If no safe and beneficial agreement is landed by the next election it will not do for Mr Picardo to simply ask you to trust him to have another go given his track record of failure so far.
So the basic vision Mr Picardo offers is high on spin and glossy pictures but built on a mountain of debt, fuelled by recklessness and ignoring an out of control spiral of waste and abuse. The beneficiaries of that vision are not you. It is the privileged few close to Government. It is not the people who suffer pay freezes, lack of opportunities or who are frustrated by a Government that does not deliver or listen.
It’s time for a new vision that gets us out of the financial crisis. Where we lower debt and tell you precisely how your money is spent. Where we investigate and publish how each of these Government companies has been spending your money. We will introduce new controls to stop waste, abuse and corruption. We will deliver value for money and standards. Gibraltar will work again – with systems that will be overhauled, where we deal radically with public services and the reshaping of our economy. Above all what we offer is a radical and progressive new way – like we delivered in 1996
when we broke with the GSLP past and you took Gibraltar back. What Mr Picardo offers is just more of the same.
The time for change has not yet come but it is coming and it’s in your hands. For now I wish you and your families a happy and healthy 2023 – a year that will give you the exciting opportunity to trigger the change that you and Gibraltar badly need.