Orcadian 21/11/17

Former Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale’s decision to take part in the latest series of I’m A Celebrity….! has caused what might politely be described in political circles as a ‘stooshie’. 

Having spent two years coping with the warring factions in her own party, I have no doubt that three weeks dealing with the worst the Australian jungle can throw at her will come as light relief to Kezia. Certainly no Bushtucker Trial will leave as nasty a taste in the mouth as some of what she’s had to put up with during her time as Labour leader.

All that said, and much as I admire and like Kezia, I do find her decision difficult to justify. Her claim that she will be able to get her message across to a wider audience is as credible as it was when George Galloway used the same immortal lines before sweeping over the threshold of the Big Brother house. Not that I expect Kezia to be seen dead in a catsuit!

However, in the run up to publication of the Scottish Government’s budget, the timing for Kezia could hardly be worse. Although her direct involvement in shaping the budget would have been negligible, the message her departure Down Under sends to constituents is not a good one.

After all, as Kezia herself acknowledges, this is a budget that will have far-reaching and potentially long-lasting implications for public services across the country, including in the Lothians region she represents. Certainly that is the case here in Orkney, where the priority will undoubtedly be seeking a resolution to the long-running impasse over internal ferry service funding.

One of my first acts as Orkney’s MSP in 2007 was setting up a meeting with the then Finance Secretary, John Swinney and Orkney Islands Council in a bid to achieve a breakthrough. Since then, it has been slow going, although latterly it appeared that progress was being made.

When Derek Mackay took over as Transport Minister in 2014, he appeared to grasp the inherent unfairness of a funding arrangement that was draining millions a year from OIC’s budget in return for a service that was falling further and further behind that enjoyed by almost every other island community in Scotland. When I raised this with him in parliament, Mr Mackay assured me “the provision of transport services should not place a disproportionate financial burden on any council, particularly with reference to revenue support for ferry services and ferry replacement costs for internal ferry services.”

Of course, Transport Ministers only act on the say-so of the Finance Secretary. As luck would have it, however, last year saw Mr Mackay elevated to just such a position. Surely with his hands on the financial levers of government, the newly-minted Finance Secretary would see an opportunity to make good on his earlier promise.

Apparently not. Without any hint of shame, Mr Mackay has made clear to me and to OIC that he has no intention of putting additional funding in his budget to honour the commitment he made. This is outrageous and shows a disregard for the genuinely ‘lifeline’ nature of these ferry services that Mr Mackay, as a former Transport Minister, should understand. His cavalier attitude towards the communities that rely on these services does neither him nor his government any credit.

Needless to say, I will continue to make the case in the strongest possible terms for this wrong to be righted. It will be a key priority in the budget discussions my Liberal Democrat colleague, Willie Rennie has with Mr Mackay. And it will be my focus over the next three weeks.

Given the attitude shown by the Finance Secretary, nothing is guaranteed. On the upside, however, I do not expect to have to eat bugs, bats or kangaroo ‘bits’ while getting my message across. Moreover, I give a solemn undertaking that despite what has been described as a ‘mean’ Strip the Willow and a not altogether embarrassing Gay Gordons, I will be knocking back any unwanted advances from the producers of Strictly Come Dancing for the time being.

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