A year ago Gibraltar politics received a shock when the GSD announced that Fabian Vinet, who was second in the polls to Peter Caruana at the previous election, would not be on its slate. I contacted Fabian at the time to see if he wanted to talk: he didn’t but nearly a year on he does.
David Eade: It was around a year ago that you received the major shock that you would not be a GSD candidate in the coming election. Whilst you were shocked, those in politics were puzzled and no doubt many voters were surprised. At the time you kept a dignified silence: a year on how do you look back on those painful days?
Fabian Vinet: I recall saying at the time that I felt lost and confused, and that’s precisely the overwhelming recollection. I wasn’t angry or bitter or even resentful, but I was certainly hurt and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t tough days. In a sense it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with human nature. When you have a roadmap of your career and your life ahead of you and the plans are drastically altered for you, and in particular without good reason, it comes as a shock and it hurts. So yes, they were painful days for my family and I. Bear in mind that I had been a member of the GSD Executive since 2000 and that I had always been loyal to the Party generally and Peter Caruana specifically. In fact I’d been working closely and built up a great rapport with the members of the Young GSD and other new faces, as well as being part of the think-tank that was responsible for the political content of the manifesto and overall political steer and message in the run-up to the 2012 election. That particular committee only had three of the then existing Ministers in its composition, namely the Chief Minister, the Deputy Chief Minister and myself. Perhaps that did not please others who had not been asked to be involved. So in that scenario of involvement and trust, to effectively be told by the Executive, “we don’t want you – we are trying to regenerate and rejuvenate the party by bringing in younger candidates but have decided to remove the youngest of the existing Ministers in the process”, well, to me it did not make sense and felt like a stab in the back. Having said that, I am conscious that I was not betrayed by the Party in the wider sense, by which I mean the members and supporters, many of whom will always be good friends, but rather by a majority of the Executive. Despite the unexpected outcome and the days of uncertainty and worry that followed, I will always be proud of my involvement in the GSD during those twelve years and have no regrets. I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve Gibraltar and hope my time in politics did not go unnoticed and that I was able to make a difference.
DE: I know you received messages from people across the political divide – did that help lessen the pain?
FV: It made all the difference, it really did. The extraordinary thing – and I give you my word this is true – is that still now, almost a year since the event, people who I have not bumped into during this time, many of them strangers, will still stop me to offer support and explain their view on what happened. It’s intriguing that after all this time there are still people who feel strongly enough about the decision and what or who they felt was behind it. Particularly at the time, I was very humbled by the support and prayers from so many hundreds of individuals, of all political persuasions, and will always be grateful for their words and encouragement. Politicians also lent their support, most notably Peter Caruana and Joe Holliday from my then party. But even those who sat across the floor in Parliament, people like Fabian Picardo, Joe Bossano and Joseph Garcia contacted me and to be able to put aside political differences and extend a very genuine hand of friendship and support speaks volumes about them and those are things that at a personal level I will neither forget nor take for granted. So in answer to your question, yes, all those messages were a huge help and boost and they still are, but I don’t want to live in the past. Life is just too short to bear grudges and to be bitter when I have so much to be thankful for in life. I’ve moved on and prefer to focus on the positive.
DE: It is a common perception that the GSD is Caruana’s party and if he had wanted you to stand you would have. The fact that he supposedly voted for you and the others didn’t doesn’t mean you had his support: he could simply have been saving facing whilst ordering your removal? Conspiracy theory or element of the truth?
FV: I would rather that question be put to the only person who really knows the answer, but I do know this: Even with the flaws or negative traits that some may attribute to him – and we all have them to some extent – I have always regarded Peter not only as a formidable Chief Minister who spearheaded a positive transformation of Gibraltar, but as a religious, good human being with high moral values. I therefore have no reason to question his assurances and on that basis am convinced that he did vote for me, as he told me he did. Why, if the outcome was not of his liking, he failed to act to somehow reverse the decision, is not something I have the answer to and do have more difficulty in understanding. We are all free to speculate as to the real reason behind this or that and certainly I have my own personal views as to what transpired in the background, even though I am not a conspiracy theorist by nature.
DE: The general election was a closely run affair: as you were the second most popular candidate on the GSD list at the previous election do you think your personal vote could have swung the result in your party’s favour?
FV: I am not as pretentious as to think the result would have been different, but it is not inconceivable that it could have been. Many share that view. I know for a fact that there were more than just a few persons whose voting intentions were affected and who either decided not to vote at all as a sign of protest or to be more selective as to how their votes were distributed, so there must have been an effect, even though it is impossible to quantify its extent. My personal belief? I do not necessarily think that my mere presence on the slate of candidates would by itself have resulted in the GSD winning the elections, but I do think it was one of a number of factors that contributed to the result. The margin of difference between the two main parties was not huge so who knows, it may perhaps have made a difference.
DE: In your years in government what did you view as your greatest success – and I know politicians do not admit failures so where could you have done better?
FV: Well I don’t agree with the general statement that politicians are unable or unwilling to admit failures. I think most people go into politics for the right reasons and because they want to improve their country and better the lives of its people, as opposed to achieving some sort of personal gain. But as much as politicians may want to help, they aren’t infallible and there is nothing wrong in admitting failure. If you look at all my budget speeches and party political broadcasts over the years, I have always been honest enough to admit when there is more to be done or that improvements to date don’t go far enough. The electorate are astute, savvy and clever and do not like to be lied to or patronised. What is the point of describing something as perfect when it visibly isn’t? Of course there are things I wish my government had done differently or sooner, and under the notion of collective responsibility I accept my own role within that. I think doing away with the self-repair system for government rental properties was a mistake, and when we have a 1RKB Housing Waiting List that is hugely greater than that of other sized properties, we should have built many one- and two-bedroom flats to cater for that demand. That is something I strongly felt ought to have been in the GSD manifesto. Also, I don’t think we were bold enough to not think about political repercussions and look more closely at the eligibility criteria for public housing to at least try and prevent the abuse that exists in some areas. At a more general level and without focusing on specifics, I wish I’d have been more confident and more forceful in making my voice heard within Government, both to fight for what I thought was best and also to fight against what I thought should have been handled differently. But there are also a fair share of what I regard as personal successes. I was Minister for the Environment at the time in which the air quality monitoring stations were commissioned and backed the setting up of the first World Environment Day to be commemorated locally, for instance. The Autumn Festival of Art and Culture was my personal idea and I gave the green light to the first ever Calentita Festival. I would like to think that I brought a new, fresh approach to Culture so that it involved younger people and did not only focus on the Fine Arts and Classical music. On the Housing front, I made a conscious effort to focus more than ever before on the social and medical needs of housing applicants and that resulted in absolute record allocations to persons and families on those waiting lists. Some of my predecessors as Housing Ministers either chose not to meet members of the public or were selective as to who they met. From day one at the Ministry I took the decision to change things and meet with each and every person who wanted to see me. Not one single request was turned down, although that did result in members of the public having to wait longer than I would have liked, even if that was an unavoidable consequence of what I think was not only a more accessible approach but a more human and personal one too. At the end of the day, not everyone’s problems can be resolved in the way they desire, but those whom I met will know I did everything within my means to help as much as possible. I’m certainly not perfect but I did try my best.
DE: A year on how do you view the performance of the GSLP Liberal Government and your old party in opposition?
FV: Well I think it’s more difficult to judge the performance of Opposition parties because what they do or don’t do cannot readily translate into something visible or tangible. It must be very demoralising and difficult to find oneself on the Opposition benches, especially after sixteen years of calling the shots. The GSD has some good and committed people like Damon Bossino, who for many years I felt should play an active role in politics. As far as the GSLP/Liberals’ performance over the past eleven months, I think on balance and objectively, it has been good and possibly better than many expected. Look, no government can ever get everything right because we are human beings and so prone to errors of judgement. On the fishing issue, for instance, their manifesto gave them a mandate to pursue a particular policy that differed from the GSD’s, although my personal belief is that the process and timetable should have been handled differently. But on the whole, I think an independent observer will find it difficult to find fault with the moves towards a more open and accessible democratic process. The greater number of meetings of Parliament, the publication on a regular basis of statistics without the need for the Opposition to request the details, public meetings of the Development and Planning Commission… These are all positive steps forward which I welcome. Whatever our political leanings, how could anyone not support the employment of more teachers, the publication of Command Papers before relevant Bills or more Cabinet-led decision making? I’m now out of active politics but I still want what is best for Gibraltar and for my children, so I will always wish the government of the day well in pursuing the policies that the electorate has voted for. At a purely personal level, but which necessarily even if subconsciously has an impact on how someone’s abilities and credibility are perceived, I have profound respect for Fabian Picardo. At a time when things were not easy, he extended a hand of friendship and support and was man enough to be able to put our political differences to one side. As a result, I now enjoy a professional working relationship with Government, based on my legal background. I speak from my own personal experience when I say that I have found Mr Picardo to be trustworthy and decent. His kindness towards my family and I is not something I will ever forget.
DE: Eleven months out of government: what does the future hold for you now and with the speculation over the future direction and leadership of the GSD is there a role for Fabian Vinet?
FV: There is no role for me in active politics in the near future, of that I am certain. I am enjoying spending more time at home with my young family and am also kept busy with the important work of the Commission on Democratic and Parliamentary Reform, while very soon I intend to become involved with a brand new medical charity that we hope will be launched in the coming months. But I do miss ministerial office and being able to influence things directly. I hope at some point in the future, whether that is in five or ten or even twenty years’ time, there will be a political role for me in support of those with the best interests of Gibraltar genuinely at heart. If at some point there are those who wish me to return and I feel I can make a real contribution, and of course should the electorate so desire, it would be a privilege to do so.