Wednesday, 8 August 2012
An abysmal performance from our Chief Minister Re: Electoral Reform
This morning I attended an Electoral Commission hearing to view the submission by Chief Minister Senator Gorst. He was the only one being interviewed for some reason, and the announcement of the hearing was made very last minute the day before.
I was hoping that I could report back on it with some glimmers of hope, some interesting suggestions and views, but I was utterly disappointed and I very much regret that I have to write such a negative blog post today. I honestly do try my best to like Senator Gorst and because I love Jersey I wish for him to succeed. After all, the alternative is infinitely worse. But time after time he falls below my expectations and I have to denounce him. His submission was completely underwhelming, incoherent and inconsistent. It was frankly painful to watch, especially hearing the sniggering coming from the viewing gallery when he said things that were just so manifestly absurd.
To be fair to the Senator, he got off to a reasonably good start. He addressed the problems that there is with reform in Jersey, based around the fact that there are the self interests of the members wanting to retain their seats, as well as the political perspectives interests in wanting to make sure people of various wings take an electoral advantage. He even acknowledged that there is a perception that the Constables are effectively a conservative ("some small c's, some big C's") block. But that is where the positives ended.
From then on, his ramblings were simply incoherent and he never laid out in straight terms exactly what it was he was proposing for Jersey, and instead took time to talk about each category and analysed it in turn. This is the totally wrong approach to electoral reform. Your starting point has to be the principles and the values behind what you are doing, because that lays down a purpose for what you are doing and sets out the criteria that you must adhere to. You build your democracy on top of the principles and values you hold. You don't simply change a system that was not built with democracy in mind and hope that it'll work democratically. You are better off starting with a blank canvass.
Lets not forget, what is the actual reason we are having this whole debate in the first place? It is Democracy. This isn't meant to be a PR exercise to make politicians look good (if it is, it's failing miserably), it is to find a solution to make Jersey more democratic. And so I took a tally to see how many times Senator Gorst used the word "democracy" in his submission. The number was precisely 0. He appeared to have absolutely no grasp on what he was actually there for. How on Earth can anyone make a sensible suggestion on electoral reform if they haven't got a clue on the context and philosophy behind it?
He stated his support for the retention of the position of Senator. A reasonable position that I have no quarrel with. But he seemed to suggest that an idea for their retention should be in the form of an upper chamber (I wonder where he got that idea?). And when he was pressed on that question, he declared that he wanted to make no comment over election or appointment. How inconsistent could he be? If the Senators are fundamental because of their mandate, then you have to comment on election or appointment, because it should be fundamental to the whole purpose of what he is suggesting. Thankfully some commission members appeared to realise this, but to my disappointment, they were totally impotent in any meaningful scrutiny of his suggestions. Had I been on the panel, I would have relished the chance to take his proposition apart bit by bit and show how little thought and logic there was in it. But instead, after a mild rebuke, they carried on. Maybe this was because they didn't want to embarrass him because of his high office (that's never stopped me!).
I completely denounce this suggestion that we have an upper chamber. It is nothing more than a silly compromise to try and keep either the Senators, or the Constables in a form that maintains their hegemony in policy when they are completely unnecessary. Senator Gorst talked about the history of reform at the beginning of his remarks, but he completely ignores the fact that the direction of history has been pointed towards more accountability, not less. An upper chamber is a step backwards. Fancy that, this paradox that when the country is debating having an elected upper chamber, we in Jersey are entertaining the thought of possibly having an appointed chamber! It's just unreal.
After this, he went on to talk about the position of the Constables. This is where it just descends into silliness. Aside from the usual nonsense about how the Parishes provide a vital link to the States (as if that is somehow necessary...) and that the Constables are wise and respected (two words - Saddie Rennard), he said that the Parish system would fall apart if they were not in the States. I completely refute this as I think them being in the States actually harms their position, but if I'm wrong and it will diminish the role... so what? If the parish system can only survive on life support by the States, then it just isn't worth keeping. If it's such a wonderful system it will survive because of it's use. Such a suggestion just proves that they are desperate.
Perhaps the funniest (if also saddest) part of the interview was when he said "the Parish system makes Jersey what it is", which prompted a comment from a member of the public "what, feudal?" which summed up perfectly how much of a stupid thing it was to say. You either have democracy, or you have the Constables. You cannot have both. That is simply a fact.
As if that wasn't enough, he then went on to say that the deputies had to be changed because of different districts and constituencies varying in size and population there was a democratic deficit that couldn't be maintained... But hang on, how on Earth does that not apply even more so to the Constables?! You couldn't make it up. The democratic deficit is unacceptable for the Deputies, but it's A-okay for the Constables?
He was asked how he'd like to see the new boundaries for Deputies worked out, particularly if he would like an independent boundary commission. He responded that he would rather not have one, to which Deputy Tadier tweeted "Does he want a partisan one?", which I couldn't have put any better. If you are after democracy, the boundaries have to be decided independently, otherwise you get gerrymandering.
But one of the biggest points of hypocrisy and inconsistency was when he stated at one point that he agreed with the Clothier recommendation of 42 or 44 States Members (this sort of cherry picking of the Clothier Report is exactly why it failed), without a hint of irony shortly after he had talked about the problem many States Members have of not being able to spend enough time studying legislation. How exactly does reducing the number of members help this problem? Surely it just makes it worse?
Finally, there was not a single word on voter systems. It didn't even come up. Despite it being crucial to deciding who represents each district and there is no consensus at all on First Past the Post, you'd have thought it would be something to consider.
And here is where I will get dismissed for conspiracy theories... Senator Gorsts performance today (for that is what it was) was just his turn to toe the party line and argue for what Bailhache has probably decided months ago would be the outcome, as a way of making it appear legitimate. The coincidences were too great, and no individual who had actually taken time to think through their position would have made so many school-boy errors as he did. He just went up, knowing what the desired outcome is, and tried, and failed, to adumbrate it as he'd agreed to do.
This is exactly why it is so important for people to take heed of what Reform Jersey has said, and write to the commission to make it obvious to any independent observer that these sorts of ridiculous recommendations by those in power are not what the public want. If we roll over and let them get away with it, we will suffer the consequences for decades to come.
I really do apologise for the undiplomatic, uncompromising and strong tone of this post, but you really should have been there. It is so difficult to say anything other than what I have said after such an abysmal display.
After the brief comment I made on the submission from the Constable of St Peters, I intend to petition for a Parish Assembly in St Saviours in the next few days. Stay tuned for more info!