FABIAN PICARDO INTERVIEW: ‘I’ve met the new dawn’

Four years after taking charge of Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo tells Tom Powell his proudest achievement, one regret and why Gibraltar doesn’t need a Podemos or UKIP

LAST UPDATED: 25 Nov, 2015 @ 14:38

Fabian Picardo in his No6 office

FROM a new park to a fantastic university and from 850 new affordable homes to a new school, Fabian Picardo has certainly not contemplated his navel during his first four years in office. 

But when asked what he is most proud of achieving, the Chief Minister leans back on his plush office sofa with a boyish smile and refers to one small line in his last election manifesto.

‘We will ensure that IVF treatment is available through the Gibraltar Health Authority’, read the promise in the GSLP/Liberal Alliance document four years ago.

Describing the entire manifesto as a ‘new dawn’, Picardo is buzzing to explain that he has ‘actually met this new dawn’. Quite literally.

By this, he means the babies born thanks to the free IVF treatment, which was introduced to help struggling would-be parents to conceiving naturally.

“There are now 25 new Gibraltarians as a result of that policy,” he states proudly. “That is some achievement.”

As indeed, is his no small effort of introducing – with wife Justine – two small Gibraltarian boys into the world during his first term in office.

Handsome and healthy, Sebastian and Oliver are apparently only too happy to sit by their dad during key events in the Gibraltar calendar, such as National Day.

It is just a shame that neither of them – nor the 25 others born from IVF treatment – will be old enough to vote for the Rock’s ebullient leader on November 26.

Not that it should matter. The Oxford graduate seems set for a landslide victory, although he is quick to rubbish any suggestion that it’s in the bag already.

“I won’t take any single vote for granted, there is everything to play for,” he states, pointing at a photo of a local lady in the last issue of the Olive Press, who had told Daniel Feetham she was voting for him.

“I spoke to her this week and she’s definitely not voting for him, that much I know for certain,” he laughed.

We are meeting the leader in his temporary office in a wing at Number 6, the historic crucible of Gibraltar government.

Going through a major reform – like so much of the enclave these days – the whole building feels modern and stylish, if a touch sterile.

Ushered in with a perfunctory smile, we are seated on a comfortable brown Chesterfield sofa, from where we have a good view of the rather sparse office, which currently houses his treadmill, just one bookshelf and a rather lonely looking desk at one end.

Smartly dressed in a navy blue suit and light blue tie, he perches at one end of another sofa and, to be fair, looks like he would rather take a nap.

He immediately launches into full campaign mode though and admits he is working marathon hours at the moment in what he describes as the ‘politics Olympics’.

Indeed, before his party’s new manifesto was finished, he was getting just three hours sleep a night. Now it’s a more comfortable six although, as his chief press officer admits, a 1am text from the boss is not an uncommon occurrence. “Some idea he has on this or that. Sadly I can’t turn my phone off,” he adds.

But no surprise. Picardo’s work ethic is legendary.

He started out as a messenger boy with leading local law firm Hassans aged just 14, during the school holidays.

Entailing running around the enclave delivering this and that, he got his first taste of life in commerce and, perhaps most importantly, with litigation.

It was little surprise to anyone then, when he took up a full-time role with the firm the day he returned from Oxford University with flying colours. Some six years later, he had been made a partner.

The hard work continued into politics and, as if to emphasise his work ethic, after winning a closely-fought election four years ago, he and his team were sworn in and started working straight after breakfast the next day.

It might, of course, help to explain the turbocharged effect he has had on the Gibraltar economy.

GDP has rocketed from £1.16 to £1.84 billion in four years. And only the border problems stopped it short of reaching £2 billion.

Meanwhile, the Community Care kitty has gone from zero to £100 million, he insists, while deposits in the Gibraltar Savings Bank have grown from £300 million to over £1 billion, and the list goes on…

Game-changing projects have been coming thick and fast, from Commonwealth Park to two new schools, from the University of Gibraltar to sheltered accommodation for the elderly at Charles Bruzon house and Seamaster Lodge.

Picardo with the Olive Press' Tom Powell
Picardo with the Olive Press’ Tom Powell

Even the mythical airport tunnel is soon to become a reality, he promises, with the southern end now completed and water draining underway.

But his party is only fulfilling manifesto commitments made four years ago. This, Picardo believes, is why Gibraltar has not seen the emergence of an anti-politics party like the rest of Europe.

“We have done exactly what we promised we would. If we had not carried out our promises people would have started to lose trust,” says Picardo. “People value honesty.”

Honesty is, of course, one of the most important aspects of government, but what happens when the right-wing press in your neighbouring country takes a distinctly dishonest approach?

Picardo has been keeping a sharp eye on the Spanish media, forcing retractions and apologies from both Telecinco and ABC.

“If I’m not on the front page of a right wing Spanish newspaper then I haven’t done my job,” he jokes.

“We have done a fantastic job in getting apologies and now they are much more nuanced in their reporting because they know that we will be coming after them.”

Crossing the border into Spain has generally not been an issue for the Chief Minister, where he is indeed recognised.

There has only been one real incident of note, in Algeciras, where he was stopped from speaking and left without police protection.

“It was clear we had been set up, they just wanted there to be trouble,” he says.

But Spain still has an allure for him and his wife Justine, who try to get in to see the real Spain when they can.

This meant slipping away to celebrate her 30th birthday in Barcelona earlier this year, where despite being recognised by a few local Catalans, he had no problems.

“We had a fantastic time because we love Spain, the food and the culture,” says Picardo, whose grandmother was in fact Spanish.

Growing up in a humble family of six on the Rock was very different to how it is now.
Back then, Gibraltar was completely cut off from its neighbour with the border shut, but the ‘claustrophobia’ felt by some adults, certainly didn’t transcend to children.

In a ‘very very happy’ childhood, the young Fabian enjoyed playing football, riding his bike – a red Chopper – without a helmet, and reveling in the sheltered safety of life on the Rock.

He was brought up in a working class home in the Upper Town and, despite having two brothers and a sister, the vast age differences meant he was effectively an only child.

It was a humble, Catholic upbringing that so many Gibraltarians can relate to, and which has equipped him to lead the nation he loves into a bright future.

But when asked if he has any regrets about his leadership so far, he doesn’t hesitate to hit out at rival Daniel Feetham, essentially the Punch to Picardo’s Judy.

“My biggest regret is that I told the Leader of the Opposition he should resign, because Danny Feetham is now the most important member of my team, going into this election,” he says, delivering the put-down with a wry smile.

Then he stands up, stretches and prepares to get back to the non-stop work that has served the nation so well, thus far.

The only question that remains to be answered is, do Gibraltarians agree?

Tabata or not tabata?

WHEN you’re working hard on an election campaign, it’s not easy to keep up your fitness regime.

So it’s a good thing Fabian Picardo’s workout of choice only takes four minutes.

The Tabata method is an increasingly popular form of high intensity training founded by a Japanese scientist.

It involves 20 seconds of hard training (as hard as you can) followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times.

The result? A gut-busting workout which builds muscle and sheds those extra pounds.

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