June 6, 2013 by Jaime Netto
Speech by The Hon. JJ Netto on the Parliamentary Prayer.
I am grateful for the opportunity of making a contribution to this important
subject of Parliamentary reform.
May I from the very start state that what I am about to say is as an individual
Member of Parliament and in no way a contribution by the GSD Opposition.
Also, I make no apologies for the fact that the subject matter is controversial.
I will be addressing all Members of Parliament regardless of party political affiliation on the question of the recital of the prayer at the beginning of every Parliamentary session, and as I will argue in a minute, why, in my opinion, there is no longer a need to continue with this practice.
But, before I do this, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate the Leader of the Opposition, and indeed my fellow colleagues in the Opposition benches, in allowing me to speak on this matter of individual conscience in the same tradition as the previous GSD Leader, The Hon. & Learned Peter Caruana QC did when we were in Government on sensitive issues of conscience, such as the equalisation of the age of consent for sex at the age of 16 (even though not all of my colleagues then or now agree with my views), these are issues where the GSD party does not hold individual members within a ‘three line whip’ but rather, allows each and every individual member to express their own conscience regardless of party affiliation, a tradition worth maintaining.
The Hon. Chief Minister in his speech at our first session of Parliament, after the refurbishment, did say inter-alia that the new prayer which is now recited, is due in large measure to the contribution the late Charles Bruzon made in order to update the language from the previous one, and that in the opinion of the Chief Minister, this would remind him of Charles Bruzon for the great man he was.
I would like to say that Mr. Charles Bruzon was to me a very good friend in which I had the honour of sharing many good memories, either in Parliament or outside. Indeed our friendship extended to the many CPA Conferences we both attended together, jointly defending the collective Gibraltar position, and rising above party political differences as is common at such conferences. Also, given that I happened to be one of the longest serving Housing Ministers, often, in private, I would provide him with some useful advice on how to cope with what is one of the most demanding Ministries.
However, that said, among the many good qualities that Charles had was that he was a true democrat and would accept the principle of anyone raising a contrary point of view to the one he would passionately hold. Something that I will now do.
The recital of the prayer at the beginning of each Parliamentary session probably goes back to the period before the House of Assembly. No doubt this, like many other things we do in our Parliament, is due to the political evolution in Gibraltar from the British political class, predominantly from the House of Commons.
In that political evolution, and most specifically in the context of our new Constitution, we have reached a new qualitative stage in our political emancipation where we should, in my opinion, no longer be speaking in Parliament in terms of conducting our proceedings under a cloak of some ancient or religious doctrine.
First of all, when we as Parliamentarians get elected into this chamber, we do not exclusively speak on behalf of Roman Catholics per se, or Anglicans, or Presbyterians, or Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus, or Jehovah Witnesses, or Agnostics, or as Atheists. We speak on behalf of all the people of Gibraltar regardless of any religious views or orientations. Therefore, to impose any prayer on those people who are not religious , or even to those people who are religious but would keep matters of State and Religion separate, is frankly an undemocratic act.
When the new prayer say, ‘We’, as in ‘We humbly ask you to guide and assist us in our deliberation and in our work’, this means that Parliament is being converted into a Church public event. In other words Parliament is being converted into a State itself in prayer, manifesting a commitment to religious beliefs and observance. This therefore, negates the democratic principles of preserving each and every person’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and diversity. I am not saying that for those Members of Parliament who do wish to have the opportunity of praying before Parliament starts that they should not have the facility to do so outside this chamber, I am quite content for some room to be made available to them so that before entering the chamber they can ask for guidance to their respective God if that is their wish. Just as I think that I should not infringe their rights, they in turn should not infringe my rights either.
I suppose that for those who may wish to side-step the rational of my argument, will say that why it has taken me 17 years of Parliamentary life for now to raise this issue. In response, I would say that it is for a number of reasons. Already I have alluded to the fact that we do have a new Constitution that is in my opinion a much clearer secular one from the one that we had before. Secondly, the fact that we have a new prayer and the timing of it comes at a time in which we are almost simultaneously having a discussion of Parliamentary reform, therefore it is absolutely right that at this juncture I should bring up this matter for discussion. As people know, I am an atheist and I make no apology for the views I have.
In the light of what I have said, Mr. Speaker, I would humbly suggest to the Leader of the House, The Hon. Chief Minister, that on this matter alone to provide for a free vote, as was the case in the Scottish Parliament, so that each Member of Parliament can express and vote in accordance with their conscience. The Leader of the Opposition has told me he will not impose a ‘three line whip’ on this issue even if he does not support a change of the practice. What I find difficult is to continue to stand whilst a prayer is recited knowing that this act infringes my freedom of conscience and having to acquiesce to a situation in which it negates the principle of equality amongst some members of the legislature. No member should receive an inferior treatment as we have all been elected by the people of Gibraltar. I hope Hon. Members understand what the issues that I bring to bear for consideration are and that we move forward from a position of respect to everyone.
Our Constitution may not be perfect (although I would say hardly any Constitution in the World is), but we have gone a long, long way in showing the world how politically advanced we are in Gibraltar. In fact, if we look at the various tenets running through our Constitution, whether the ‘Fundamental rights and Freedoms of the individual’, the ‘Protection of Freedom of conscience’ and the ‘Protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, etc’, it is implicit in the text and vocabulary therein the manifestation of a secular framework, which is the only way that we can bind together people of different personal views without offering a preferential treatment to anyone, or to one group of people over others. Living in a secular society, and practicing secularism in Parliament means adopting the principle of neutrality in our public discourse. Neutrality means just that: neither standing in favour or against religion or of any other views. It also means that when we act in a Parliamentary session, we do so by leaving behind any private interest. That is, we act in the public interest of all our community.
I believe, Mr. Speaker, that there should be a clear separation of Church and State and in particular, to the way we run Parliament. To quote Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution and the third President of the United States:
Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that the act of the whole American people “make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, thus building a wall of separation between Church and State (Letter to the Danbury Baptists, 1802).
The wording of the new prayer, despite its non-denominational basis, still continues to be an affront to the principle of equality that should enshrine the rights of all individuals in our society here represented in our Parliament. There is no need to prefix language of ‘counsel, wisdom and understanding’ to an almighty God. In this political chamber, the counsel, wisdom and understanding that we need to project collectively is derived from the individual members of Parliament regardless of party membership and from the rules and contribution that we all make in the course of our Parliamentary life and from the experience of those Parliamentarians that have been here before us.