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28 May 2003

New Session – Old Ideas

The Parliament’s business is at last beginning to move forward. But that brings mixed news.

Labour backbenchers were seen in a huddle – I know because I joined them for a bit of fun – poring over the “Partnership Document”. Why? Well they may have fought an election a few weeks ago on their manifesto. But now their program is something cobbled together in a few days and without their involvement.

I was treated to the sight and sound of joy when one of the group eventually said, “It’s here on page 38 – it mentions the environment”. The relief on the faces of the others was palpable because they had just come from a chamber when the SNP Environment Spokesperson, Bruce Crawford, had taunted the First Minister on the subject.

But that is what coalition government is about. Early uncertainty for all. So my task is to read their agreement. Perhaps next week.

With the First Minister’s statement on “his” program – actually the coalition program and the one which his backbenchers were reading with alarm – now over, it is time for the hard realities to kick in.

A statement focussing on youth crime which is announced the same day as very alarming violent crime statistics is generally thought to lack credibility.

And for the North-East, the revelation from my colleague, SNP Fisheries Spokesperson Richard Lochhead, that not a single penny of the promised £50 million support for fishing industries has yet been paid, left the First Minister without an answer.

Even worse, he had not known that his Labour colleague, the Westminster Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley, had given the game away when he spoke to an English fishermen’s conference in Derby. He suggested that none of the money promised by the Scottish Executive in January will ever be paid.

Worrying as this all is, it is nothing to what is hidden in the possible new European constitution.

Proposing a new way of working in Europe is not contentious. I don’t meet many people who think the EU is a model of efficiency and responsiveness to people’s needs. And with enlargement to a union of 25 states coming “real soon”, a new and less cumbersome way of working is needed urgently.

But at the heart of the new EU proposals is one to strike fear into all our hearts.

They suggest that fishing has to be a core issue controlled by the very people who have master-minded the white fish fiasco – among others.

I have argued previously that we must escape from this Common Fisheries Policy if our fisheries are to prosper. The introduction of the CFP into the new constitution simply makes it impossible for me to support it. And that is the position my party is also taking.

I see an early meeting with European colleagues looming.

New Boys and Girls

One new arrival at Parliament after the election has yet to put in an appearance. The new MSP for Dundee East, my SNP colleague Shona Robison, is what I can only describe as heavily pregnant. Fortunately one of the new Socialist arrivals is a midwife!

My previous experience as a nurse, a psychiatric nurse that is, in no way equips me to assist at an unexpected confinement. Although my recent attendance at the birth of a lamb at least reminded me of the mechanics of the matter.

But those more vocally present in the new Parliament are beginning to speak up. So far, thankfully, without too many signs of the “madness and mayhem” which one had promised.

A member’s debate on dental services in Grampian attracted 19 speakers. And the sponsor was a newly arrived Labour member.

We have known for some time of the difficulties people in our area experience in getting onto a Health Service dentist’s list. Further disturbing information emerged during the debate.

It appears that over 11,000 have been removed from NHS dentists lists this year already. And the closure of a dental practice in Banff has led NHS Grampian to offer NHS places in Aberdeen or Banchory – hardly on patients’ doorsteps.

But most disturbing of all was the information which showed that less than half of Grampian residents are currently on any dentists’ list, NHS or private.

Prior to the dental debate we turned once again to scallops.

Once again we found ourselves proposing the closure of fishing grounds due to algal bloom.

But interestingly it seems that as many as 10 million scallops may have been delivered from supposedly affected areas over the last four years. And not a single health issue has arisen.

The Rural Development Committee previously pursued this issue. If the new one doesn’t, I surely will as an individual.

Yet another EU regulation fulfilled. But yet another such regulation that seems only to cripple our interests.

14 May 2003

Contracts

When I was in business I quickly discovered that it took a little time to do a good deal. But much longer to deliver what the deal promised. And if one had to get the contract out of the drawer to check the details, one had started on the long and winding road to the courts to fix the problem.

As I write the Liberals and Labour have shaken hands on their deal for the Scottish Parliament. Their 47-page agreement will be pored over for time to come.

Labour get to send failing parents to jail – probably! The Liberals get a “fair votes” system for local council elections – but when?

If I were a betting man – and I am not – Labour will get a Bill through that involves parents in sorting out their children’s problems. And that is precisely what the SNP argued for during the election. But jailing parents – no way will the Liberals go for that.

And my “bet” for the Liberals? They will get a new voting system for local government – and they will get it too late for the 2007 elections. So Labour might hang onto their Central Scotland monopoly a bit longer.

Because the real danger for them is clear. If other parties get to share power in council areas that have only known Labour rule and if it seems better, Labour’s hold on power at Holyrood could also fold quickly thereafter.

But the one thing that I really want to see – and I know I am not alone – is a rapid end to the farce of the new Parliament building. Yes – we may all love it in ten years time. Just like the people of Sydney grew proud of their opera house over time.

Today it remains a symbol of Labour’s arrogance in stitching up a deal before the first session of our Parliament even started. When we already had a building waiting at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Priorities

One of the new kids on the block in the second session of Parliament is the Green Party. Yes – one Green MSP was there last time. But now they have broken through the barrier and are large enough to be recognised as a group and to share in the decisions about Parliamentary business.

So I have taken time to read their manifesto. Not something I did before the election as there was no Green standing directly against me. But now I have to work with them – and have to know them.

I will not be alone in thinking it rather strange that their first major action was to table a bill which related to none of the six priorities they laid out for a Green government. Instead they shot forward to some small print on page 8 of their manifesto and have tabled a bill to create – in effect – a new form of marriage which would be available to same-sex couples as well as those in traditional male-female relationships.

Perhaps it was the priority that Labour’s Enterprise Minister, Wendy Alexander, gave to reform of “Section 28” that most damaged the Scots Parliament in the eyes of many during the last session. Did that contribute to the low turnout in the election that we are now agonising over?

Now the Green’s new bill is not the aberration of a single new and naive member of their group. No – it has been signed by all seven of their MSPs – including their leader who with four years’ experience should have known better. And the Socialists have signed up too.

I have seldom seen political “capital” spent so rapidly. I wonder how many of the Green voters when they made their cross on the “list” paper on 1st May realised that this was the Green Party’s priority above all else.

Craibstone

My colleague Brian Adam, now MSP for Aberdeen North, has made an early bid for a debate on the Scottish Agricultural College Board’s plans which threaten to close the rural parts of the college in favour of Edinburgh.

I have met students, staff and farmers who are all united in their view that a college focussed on agriculture should be located in the country. I firmly agree.

But Edinburgh MSPs have already started a fight back. They want the city to have a monopoly in rural education. And have tabled their own motion in Parliament to that effect.

It is rather depressing to see a divide between city and country opening up so early in this Parliament. With a more diverse membership, it simply is not going to be useful to polarise opinion when what we need is common purpose – across party lines – and across town and country.

I am not alone in fighting for SAC’s Craibstone campus in the North-East. We must not lose this one.

2 May 2003

All over but not bar the shouting

This time the results are confusing. Just as I saw numbers of voters struggling with the very large peach ballot paper for the Scottish Parliament list, so pundits struggle to understand the meaning of a six-party system.

The Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists are now in Edinburgh in some numbers. Was this the electorate saying “a plague on the established parties”? Or was it a genuine desire to have government take account of what these parties stood for?

If the latter there might be some difficulty. The Socialists have said they are there to bring “mayhem and madness”.

Does that mean that they think we should suspend the business of government for four years? Does that mean that a proper debate of a serious topic must be interrupted by juvenile and spurious interventions designed for a newspaper headline rather than have a forensic analysis of the matter before Parliament?

The Greens would seem to want a serious engagement with Parliament and perhaps the electorate recognised that. They are the larger of the two new parties.

For us in the North-East it would seem that Green issues are the more important as we elected one Green but no Socialists.

My party did pretty well in our area. North of the Tay the SNP are now firmly established as the main party. We gained the largest vote in both North-East Scotland and in Highland and Islands areas.

And with gains in Dundee and Aberdeen, we have for the first time constituency seats in three of Scotland’s cities.

My own delight at being returned was tempered with disappointment at the loss of some Council seats. We have always believed in proportional representation. That would mean that each party would have a number of seats approximately the same as their share of the vote.

That creates a difficulty for “Independents”. But this campaign saw them combine and operate as a party. Paradoxically I suspect that will soon be seen to devalue their “offer” to the voter of being independent. Because all that any other party is, is a group of people operating for a shared purpose. And that is now what the “Independents” have become.

So on share of the vote at the Council elections, we moved slightly towards a fairer distribution of seats in reflection of the voters’ views.

In Parliament any Liberal-Labour coalition government will have a tough time. Depending on who gets elected as Presiding Officer on Wednesday afternoon, they would have only a two or three seat majority.

So one Minister away on business, a couple of members off sick with a cold, a lady member’s pregnancy and the government won’t be sure of winning their votes.

It should also mean that the Liberals can strike a hard bargain about proportional representation – widely known as “fair votes” – for the next local council elections. They compromised on that last time – and I might argue on much more besides – but many of their backbenchers won’t let them this time.

So my party can expect a further adjustment of members in 2006 or 2007 when Aberdeenshire next elects its Council.

I have one personal problem arising from the election – loss of weight! The month of the election is a month of frantic scurrying around. My waistline has shrunk – three notches on my belt – and I am going to have to drill another hole if I maintain my new slim figure.

There were innovations in this election. Local radio station Deveron FM – bravely I thought – gave each candidate five minutes air time in exchange for being pummelled with listeners’ questions. That seemed to work well. I certainly had surprisingly widespread comment from people “on the street” about my contribution.

Less happily, national papers concentrated – as a matter of policy – on national campaigns and ignored individual candidates except in “one-off” constituency profiles. That disconnected electors from “on the ground” campaigning and may have helped stiffen voters resolve to vote against the glitzy, polished politics that was all they saw on TV.

It will be back to “normal” work for MSPs shortly. And a vital need to reconnect by LOCAL campaigning focussing on voters real needs and interests.

Stewart Stevenson
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