Altaf Hussain reflects on his first year as an Assembly Member.
I was under absolutely no illusion that becoming the Welsh Conservative AM for South Wales West last year – following a General Election result that undeniably surprised many – would mean a gentle ride or cosy chance to ‘find my feet’ and ease my way slowly into the role of an AM. May’s result saw the people of South Wales West place a huge amount of trust in my party and its ability to ‘get things done’ for them; above all else, this made me determined to ‘hit the ground running’ and show that this trust was well placed. I fell back on the principles that had always served me well throughout my working life as a Surgeon – to conduct myself with honesty and integrity underpinned by an ethos of service. These principles guided me through some of my greatest challenges as a clinician; I was determined they would again be my ‘starting point’ for the new and exciting chapter of my life ahead.
The end of the fourth assembly
As the Assembly breaks for May’s election, a range of Assembly Members offer personal perspectives of their time in the Senedd.
Within my first weeks of Office, my priority was to ‘get out there’ and speak to as many different people and organisations as I could, each with a story to tell. The experience reaffirmed my world view that humanity is essentially ‘good’ and that most people are striving, most of the time, to make a positive difference in some way – whether to ensure the best future for their children, to make a positive difference to their community or simply to put a decent meal on the table for supper. I have met people who want to change the world and people for whom just walking a few yards unaided can be just as huge an achievement for them. It is a striking commonality.
My first few weeks in Cardiff Bay evoked memories of starting medical school for the first time. Fortunately, I was able to access a really great research and support team, and the Assembly Commission could not have been more helpful as I gained my bearings. Likewise, I found help from some sources that I might not have expected. My Welsh Conservative colleagues have been fantastic – as indeed have several members from all other parties, and their kindness will be tough to forget.
That is not to say that the environment is a sea of harmony. As I started to grow into the role, I became more and more excited by the opportunity presented by Ministers’ Questions to highlight the policy issues – particularly in health –about which that I had been writing to legislators (from all parties) for many years. Many of these issues derive from my own experience working in the Welsh NHS – and were party political only to the extent that I am a Welsh Conservative Member. But try telling that to the Welsh Government!
Indeed, the tribalism evidenced by the Labour Party’s conduct in the Chamber has been disappointing for me. It would have been naïve to think that Ministers would not engage in a fair amount of posturing– but there is a difference between rhetorical manoeuvring and the repudiation of responsibility. Sadly I have witnessed too much of the latter from the Welsh Government. The stock response from Ministers, when pressed on virtually any area of policy, is to talk about England – a different jurisdiction! And to an extent, one cannot be surprised. There is an obvious danger – when any Party has been in government for a very long time – that complacency will set in and its will become stale. Labour’s default position has become one of denial – or to cast blame on everyone and anything but their own decisions and policies. Every week I ask questions that relate to Wales and seek answers for the people of Wales from the First Minister and his colleagues. Every week, they refuse to answer and instead try to deflect attention by talking about events ‘over the bridge’. Labour has even sunk to suggesting that – in highlighting the failings of its government – my party is somehow unpatriotic. Indeed, when the First Minister questioned the ‘Welshness’ of a question I asked him, I was at first gravely affronted. Those that know me well, know that I am passionately Welsh by conviction. But I gained solace from his implicit acknowledgement that by making it personal, he proved he could offer no adequate response. In 2016, it is clear that Labour still confuses government, the State and the Party! This should speak volumes, and I wish that the press and broadcast media would give what goes on in the Chamber more coverage. It would – I am sure – be an eye-opener for many people in Wales.
Democracy gains its substance through accountability. It is a privilege to serve on the Health Committee and I had been at first very optimistic that this would be the perfect forum to have some influence in a less confrontational setting. My hope was that the Committee – through evidence-based discussion – would be a real engine for scrutiny. However, our scope for reigning-in the power of the Executive is by definition limited, when only five of the Committee’s members come from opposition parties. The rest (including the Chair) come from the governing Labour Party. Committees are essential under our system of devolution – especially as we have no ‘Upper House’ to act as a tempering force on government’s power. It does not serve democracy or devolution well for Committees to be treated as a rubber-stamping exercise, or to risk carrying an appearance that Executive branch of government may have too much overarching influence. Anyone thinking this point arcane, or ‘one for the Bay Bubble’ should remember that the annual budget in Wales for Health is nearly £7billion. It is a huge amount of money, conferring immense political (and moral) responsibility on those charged with spending it wisely. The present capacity for the Committee to scrutinise is not, in my opinion, sufficient. I hope to be part of the next Assembly so that I can play a role in addressing this.
I came to office at a time of global change and upheaval. The effect of events once viewed as remote happenings on distant shores is now being felt – quite literally – on our doorsteps in Wales. The world has certainly become more dangerous and divisions in our society unfortunately sadly more apparent. I have spoken and been published extensively about issues concerning racial and religious segregation. There have been calls for Muslims to speak out more strongly about these issues – and I have duly sought to do so. I freely acknowledge that as a Muslim I can talk about issues bluntly in a way that might be more difficult for a ‘white middle-class male’. Furthermore, being one of only two elected Muslim politicians in Wales arguably confers a duty on me to do so. Nevertheless, I look forward to the day when the same arguments about integration and social cohesion can be advanced by any fair-minded person without accusations of prejudice or reference to their religion, gender or ethnicity. If my condemnation of the doctrine of ‘multiculturalism’ on BBC Wales means that others one day more easily follow suit, I will regard this as a major achievement. But I think we are a long way yet from that.
I came into office wanting to do more than could ever be done in just one year at the Assembly, as I quickly realised. If I am trusted by my constituents to be their voice at the Assembly for five more, I am excited by what lies ahead for Wales. I swear I will be the strongest possible voice for South Wales West in Cardiff.