St Ouen Hustings and reform

I have been remiss in not posting about the St Ouen husting on the 28th.  In part that is because I was feeling so unwell on the day with a heavy cold and sore throat I struggled greatly just to get through the meeting.  I do not read out a prepared speech at the hustings. I do have a few headings I use as prompts to make sure I get some sort of logical flow.  A lot of what I am concerned to articulate and explain is interconnected and it is easy to come across all disconnected and vague otherwise. It also means I can respond to other comments in other candidate's speeches if necessary.

Two things stood out for me about the St Ouen husting. First was the absence  of  key sitting ministers like Sen Ozouf and Maclean and Mr Rankine, who appeared to be at all the other hustings. I'm not sure why and whether that says anything about St Ouen , or the missing observers.  It wasn't because there was another husting that evening.  The second observation was how people became keen to dig out their St Ouen family connections (A'Courts dominated!). It hasn't happened anywhere else, and I doubt it shall.  Perhaps  it is a subconscious recognition that in this parish we have a sense of belonging and local community that is strong and candidates fell the need to associate with it.

For the St Ouen husting I changed the content somewhat away from my usual stuff on why food and fuel prices are rising faster than earnings, and how my agenda for diversifying the economy and becoming more self reliant in food and alternative energy could help reverse that over time, and create more local jobs and give a bit more choice of careers. It was still there of course ,as was food security, and oil dependency, and community cohesion.  But because of the date I had to talk about constitutional reform.

September 28th is important in Jersey for two reasons. First, it is the date Guillaume (William) landed at Pevensey with his army to assert his claim on the crown of England, as promised him by Edward the Confessor. It was the success of that campaign that created the link between Normandy and the English Crown, and hence laid the foundations of our constitutional position.

Second it is important because on that date in 1769 that around 500 people descended on the Royal Court.  They were demanding that laws be written down, that there should be consultation before laws were passed and an end to certain food exports.  Just like in the Arab world today the underlying political discontent was set alight by problems in staple food prices. Back then the wealthy land owners were exporting wheat to   France to get a better price, which drove up prices locally. Since rents and rates were based on quarters of wheat, this drove up those prices too. A vicious double whammy for the ordinary islander of the day.  The upshot of the mini revolution was, among others, the removal by the Privy Council of the corrupt Attorney General, and the adoption of a code of laws.

Constitutional reform is not a feature of my election campaign, but there are 4 candidates in the senatorial election for whom it is their main issue.We made a mistake in not putting Clothier to a referendum , and simply letting the States cherry pick bits.  In fact I would argue we should put constitutional changes to the people in a referendum on  principle.  It is about the only time a referendum should be used.

I am a big fan of local and decentralised systems  for food and energy production. I want to apply that to government too.  For us in Jersey that means the parish level and I warned those candidates concentrating on constitutional reform that anything that undermines the local and parish level would not be well received by the public.

I had previously made a couple of other observations about constitutional reform that I did not have time to do on the 28th. Various reasons are given by the different candidates for pressing for change. Some are more logical than others.  I can see that reducing numbers would reduce costs (States members pay), However claiming that States reform , especially reducing numbers, would lead to improved quality and fewer questions and no 'unimportant back bench propositions' does not follow, either logically or politically.

It is not a given that more questions are a bad thing. That may reflect poor decision and policy making on the part of the Council of Ministers-so there is more to question., In part I think in recent years it also indicates a greater volume of work and increasingly complex legislation being brought forward.

There is an important question to be asked about the quality of  States members, and the importance or otherwise of backbench propositions. Who decides what is quality, and what is important?  In a representative democracy that is the decision for the electors to make. If they are unhappy with their representatives they lobby them, and if still dissatisfied with their quality or actions then reject them at election time.  Those who want to change this mechanism need to specify who they would set up as judge and jury in place of the democratic decision of the people and explain exactly why that is better than democracy. They will find it very hard to convince me as, to paraphrase Churchill, democracy is the least worst of the systems we have tried.

Logically it follows that a reduced number of States members would likely result in a reduced range of opinion and political divergence in  the Assembly.  I happen to believe in diversity as an essential aspect of stable and resilient systems, be they ecological, economic or political.  I find that argument for reducing numbers unconvincing. Moreover logically what you lose at the low quality however defined end, you also risk losing at the high quality, however defined end.  There is simply no guarantee that changing numbers changes the quality of members or debate, even if that were desirable.

To my mind the key  issues that give rise to many of the arguments for reform are caused by other aspects of our political system. First is the partisan way ministerial government has happened in the last 3 years. Our current chief minister has chosen to nominate his political friends and allies to ministerial post, rather than a broad cross-section of the political views in the assembly . In doing so he  has also undermined the role of senator by leaving so many out of ministerial posts, The inevitable consequence is that those without ministerial or assistant ministerial posts are consigned to scrutiny or oblivion.  Unsurprisingly therefore scrutiny has become a centre of opposition, rather than its proper role. So now that part of the apparatus does not function, and there is a dearth of a formal check and balance mechanism.  At this point I invite you to review the item  above about the number of questions in the assembly, and why that has happened, and whether it is a bad or a good thing.

The second reason is to do with the premise on which members are elected, and the low turn out in our elections.  There are two things noticeably absent from our election system. They are that the electorate cannot vote for a fully formed, all embracing, costed and planned out programme of government. The other is that the mechanics do not allow debate and testing of the policy platform between candidates. We are limited to electing 51  individuals not one of whom can possibly have a fully enough detailed progamme on their own, and whose 'manifesto' cannot possibly be  implemented in its entirety anyway. In short there is nothing for which we can  hold the members, and the council of ministers in particular, to collective account.  We are reduced to buying the sales and marketing brochure pitch with no trading standards equivalent right of redress when the service provided does not match up.

There are arguments for States reform, and voting reform too, based on equality of representation and proportionality of votes. Immediately it is obvious here the difficult point is the Connétables.  With parishes varying in number of electors by a factor of 10 , proportionality is not achievable if  they are the only parish representation. Yet as I have indicated I, and I think a lot of other people too, am very keen on the localised government represented by the parishes.

The obvious solution to my mind is to retain  Connétables in the assembly, with a special responsibility for heading up scrutiny, but without a vote in the assembly.  This retains a voice for parishes, especially those bigger ones that comprise multiple deputy districts, and retains the mechanism of the requete etc. It would be necessary to remove the policing functions  to the Chefs de Police.  In effect the  Connétables would take on the responsibilities of a revising second house, albeit in the same chamber.

Without a vote the proportionality issue is much less troublesome and with a secure voice in the chamber for each parish, the way is freed up to have non parish bounded constituencies, or just one island wide constituency if that was desired. I have no strong view on this, though I note surveys have suggested people strongly favour the island wide mandate. Whichever way, if we have multi-member constituencies we must have some form of PR if we are to have any sort of representative chamber.

Worryingly that seems to put me rather close to the camp of the conservative forces.


Tom Gruchy said...

Thomas James Gruchy published his manifesto in 1769 and took it around the Parishes and was arrested for reading it out at Trinity. Those who signed it also risked being arrested and many were.
People then understood the need to write down their shared aims and objectives and to work together.
Why have we in 2011 lost the message?

Mark Forskitt said...

I think one factor is we get the timing wrong. Too often this sort of thinking only emerges immediately before the election and by then it is too late , candidates have declared or signaled their intentions and campaigning takes up available time and effort.

The time to build the campaign and manifesto is immediately after the election, taking forward principles and strategies rather than short term electoral considerations. With or without States members.