Monday, 4 February 2013
Change that Jersey so desperately needs
I've spent a very large amount of time blogging and campaigning for electoral reform in Jersey and am about to spend even more time on it when the referendum campaign officially begins. But sometimes a criticism of this whole process is made (quite rightly I think), that it isn't the be all and end all and that there are still a great many things that need to be fixed in Jersey before we can have a fully democratic system that ensures the "demos kratos" of democracy is fully applied.
This could not be more accurate.
An outspoken former politician once told me that he wished me all the best with Reform Jersey's campaign and believed that we were arguing for something that was fundamentally right, but that the most important democratic change that Jersey needs is nothing to do with the system, but all to do with the political culture of Jersey. He said that even under the current electoral system, if the people of Jersey adopted a mature political culture that doesn't currently exist, the quality of Jerseys government and democracy would improve far more than a rearrangement of the electoral boundaries will achieve. He believed that this change in culture would only come about when Jersey faced a cataclysmic crisis (a huge hit to the finance industry, or something like that).
I suspect that much of that is right, though I would much prefer that we won the campaign for a fair electoral system and would hope that, from that, a better political culture would naturally develop in Jersey, without a crisis. And so for that reason I remain dedicated to the campaign for Option A.
But this point about Jersey peoples attitude to politics I think is something to really worry about. If people don't treat politics as something that is an acceptable thing to be involved in, it ultimately will impact negatively on democracy and we end up in a situation where we have a government that can't really claim to be founded upon the bedrock of popular consent.
And there isn't just a lack of people actively involved in politics in Jersey, there are actually people who make it their business to actively discourage people from exercising their right to express themselves (including several fake Twitter, Blogger and Facebook accounts specifically created to abuse and libel those involved in intelligent and sensible, but left wing or "anti-Establishment" political discussions. Do watch out for these, because they should not be taken seriously nor given any attention).
An example of this has been the recent tornado of online abuse that has been shamelessly fanned by the local media against American journalist Leah McGrath Goodman. I'm not going to defend or criticise Goodman here, nor analyse what she said in any detail, but make observations on the reaction to her interview going viral last week.
Whether you love or hate Goodman and what she is doing/ saying about Jersey, one thing that was interesting to note is just how unintelligent the majority of criticism against her was. I saw countless people on Twitter and Facebook posting the interview she did with Russia Today along with a pretty vacuous comment about how "everything she said was wrong".
When I could be bothered to challenge them to say something with a bit more substance, most couldn't, but when they proceeded to repeat that "everything she said was wrong", I would point them in the direction of Rico Sorda's posts and The Jersey Way recordings of States sessions that prove she was right when she mentioned about a Jersey blogger being gagged by the government. (You can argue the rights or wrongs of that, but it is a fact that it has happened). This was enough to convince many people that they had been unfairly dismissive of her, and that (at least) one thing she had said was actually true.
So, a foreign journalist had actually made one particular observation about Jersey that is provably true, yet the instinct of the average Jersey person was to totally dismiss her without any sort of constructive thinking or even spending a few moments on Google. Bit ironic considering one criticism was that we are "insular" as an island.
This relates to a point I've made a few times before that I make again - Patriotism in the final refuge of the scoundrel, and defending Jersey uncritically is actually bad for the island because it is an excuse to brush things under the carpet instead of paying attention to thought-out criticism and acting upon it. Jersey has a habit of trying to demonise those outside the island, to distract the populace from the islands own internal failings. (I wrote about one example here)
Some commentators made legitimate and intelligent criticisms of Goodman (Tony Bellow's blog being a good example), but we also had James Rondel's blog on the subject which demonstrated all of the things I have observed here.
I know and like James and respect him for being committed, articulate, sensible and often showing a lot of integrity (despite having huge ideological differences with him), but his blog demonstrated everything that is bad about Jersey politics. It contained not one single analysis of the accusations she made, and instead threw up all sorts of irrelevant criticisms of American politics. This is the worst of Jersey politics. The issues are ignored and the person is attacked for no reason other than that she had inconvenient and unpleasant things to say about Jersey.
This sort of way of engaging with Jersey politics has to stop. It is not healthy and does not make this island a better place.
What Jersey needs is a political culture that lets people speak their minds and provides forums for those who care about something in Jersey to actively get involved and engage with the political process, through more pressure groups and eventually political parties.
What does a young person who cares about the environment do in Jersey to get involved with the cause? Well not a lot really. There are one or two things, but nothing captivating.
Or even a young person who has suddenly become politically aware and has adopted an ideology (be it conservativism, socialism, etc) and wants to just be a part of a group that talks about these things and has various campaigns that they are involved in.
One thing that I am aware of is a group of Hautlieu students that are wanting to form a Students Association to be an official group made up of students and other interested people to advocate specifically for the interests of students in the island. So that will mean campaigning on higher education funding, how the education budget is allocated etc. But I really dread to think how these enthusiastic and well intentioned young people will suddenly realise that there are huge numbers of horrible people (that is a moderate description) in Jersey that will make it their business to rain on their parade and demoralise them into just giving up. Their tactic will be abuse, not reasoned argument.
A Golden Opportunity
This is all part of why I want to really utilise the upcoming referendum campaign to try and set a standard for politics in Jersey and show that debate is much better when it focuses on the issues, not the personalities, and that anyone can (and should!) get involved.
Many commentators seem to mistakenly believe that somehow this referendum is democratic.
As I argued in my second submission to the Electoral Commission, that is not the case because democracy is about so much more than voting on an arbitrary question. In fact Guernsey has an electoral system very similar to Option A, but they didn't have to bother with a referendum to achieve it because it was objectively more democratic than what they had before. No-one could claim that that process was undemocratic.
Referendums are simply tools used by politicians to get what they want. That's why they are not offered on questions that the executive knows they won't get the answer they want. In a Parliamentary democracy we elect people to make the decisions, not to put random and inconsistent issues to a public plebiscite.
The reason we are having the referendum in Jersey is because for decades the States have been unable to reform themselves, and if there is a clear public endorsement in a direct vote for a particular electoral system, it will become politically impossible for the States not to implement it (though they will still legally be able to ignore it). That is what it is about. It is just a tool being used as a convenient practical assistance to making progress, not for any ideological democratic reasons. But that isn't to denigrate it, in fact I think it's positive, because it will make sure that something is actually done.
A Second Question?
There is some talk at the moment about potentially using this referendum as an excuse to get a few other things out of the way too. Namely, the position of the Bailiff as President of the States Assembly. I opposed two questions on the electoral reform issue, because I saw them as being interlinked, however this I see as a standalone issue and am open to offering it my support for a second ballot question.
We have had two independent reports (Clothier and Carswell) that have said that the dual role of the Bailiff should end and that the States should elect a speaker. But no progress has been made (despite some politicians attempting to get the States to either endorse the reports findings, or put them to referendum), and so for the same reason we are having the electoral reform referendum, it may be a good idea to use this as an opportunity to get the inevitable over and done with.
Separation of Powers
As I briefly mentioned in my last post, the position of the Bailiff as the speaker of our Parliament is just not normal. In any other country, it would be considered a no-brainer that there should be a separation of powers. It is not right for the person who implements the law in the courts to also preside over the creation of the law in the Parliament.
Some argue that current system has never actually produced bad results and that all of our Bailiffs have carried out the role properly. That may or may not be true, but nevertheless, there is nothing to say that the next Bailiff may not carry out the role properly. There are no safeguards. We need a system by which the States (and by extension, the people) have the ability to get rid of a bad Speaker.
One of my favourite Tony Benn quotes is - "If one meets a powerful person, ask them five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?" If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system."
That last question would be the hardest to answer if we keep the Bailiff as President of the States.
If a Bailiff turned out to be a poor Speaker, but was an excellent judge, what could the States do? By sacking him, we would lose an excellent judge, by keeping him, we would have a States that isn't being managed well. If the roles are separated, that no longer becomes an issue. (Note that that is almost identical to one of my reasons for abolishing the dual role of the Constables). And sacking a speaker is much less controversial than sacking the civic head of the island.
As usual, some have come out with all sorts of strange arguments for the status quo. One incredible argument I heard was that we shouldn't change the system because any alternative would be more expensive! Nonsense. States Members already get a wage, so electing one of them to be the speaker would not mean adding a wage to anyone. In fact, it would mean we have a head of the judiciary that can do that job full time (thus meaning value for money from his current wage) and a speaker that can do it full time (meaning less money needing to be spent on assistants etc). If your concern for public spending restraint trumps your desire for democracy, separating the roles should still appeal to you.
Another point I would make is that on the face of it, the role of Bailiff (and the other law officers) appears to attract only men into the position. If the speaker came from the ranks of the States we would be much more likely to have female representation, which is an area that I think Jersey has a lot of work to do.
Further to that, law is a career that is stereotypically viewed as being mostly pursued by the wealthy. This is increasingly becoming less of the case, but many of the top jobs still go to those from wealthy backgrounds, simply because to train to become a barrister takes a year and it is done totally unpaid, so you need to have significant financial means already to be able to enable yourself to get to that point. Whereas training to be a solicitor is done under a paid training contract. So for years to come, if Jersey's Speaker is the top judge, it is far less likely for us to get someone from a background other than from the privileged ranks. The House of Commons previous speaker was a working class, Glaswegian, former manual worker and he did a great job.
Now, of course I'm not starting a class or gender war and saying I don't want rich men in the States, but I want the role to be able to be occupied by any Jersey person who possesses the skill to carry it out, not aided or inhibited by their background.
21st Century Jersey
The final point to make in favour of ending the dual role of the Bailiff is this - If Jersey wishes to be taken seriously across the world and wants to project an image of this island being a modern, dynamic and forward thinking jurisdiction, we cannot get bogged down in silly traditions that are universally decried as being undemocratic.
When I have spoken to lecturers, fellow students and visiting lawyers at university about Jersey and how our top judge is also Speaker of the Parliament, they genuinely raise their eyebrows in disbelief. I am not even vaguely exaggerating when I say that. To any non-Jersey person, it is just a weird (in a bad way) concept. The question I'm asked is "why on Earth would you give those two jobs to the same person?". I can't answer with "tradition" because I'll just get laughed at.
When I took part in the Commonwealth Youth Parliament in 2011, I was lucky enough to get to ask John Bercow MP, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a question about what it means to be a Speaker. Naturally I jumped at the chance to ask him what he thought about Jerseys system and if he thought it was acceptable, and I recall his words being something along the lines of "it sounds totally inappropriate".
I've even heard some Jersey lawyers who some would regard as being "Establishment" that say the dual role isn't acceptable and really ought to change.
Things like this (and the dual role of the Constables) are things that Jersey people really should be embarrassed by, not proud of, and will have a hard time trying to justify it to foreign politicians and businesspeople who will look at these things in a curious and negative way, not in an endearing way as many Jersey folk attached to their culture and tradition may do.
It is for all of these reasons that a part of me thinks that a referendum would be totally unnecessary, as it could (and should) just be done by the States without the need for all this hassle. But if that isn't an option and a referendum is what it takes to get it done, I say bring it on!
P.S. To any readers that are interested in being a part of the campaign for Option A, no matter how big or small a role you want, please send me a message with your email address (or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org) and we will make sure you are invited to the next meeting.