Sunday, 10 February 2013

Letter to the Chief Minister

One of the most useful blogs out there is The Jersey Way blog. It essentially provides an audio archive of important questions and debates in the States on things of particular interest. The States website does have an archive of hansard, but doesn't have the audio and it is sometimes hard to search through if you do not know exactly what you are looking for. Plus how something is said is often just as important as what specific words were used.

This was one posting that was particularly important to those of us concerned with electoral reform -

Hearing the Chief Minister responding to questions about the Electoral Commission's report and whether it is compatible with various international legal obligations, is a disheartening experience.

He is asked perfectly fairly to outline and justify his support, or lack of it, for a particular option and he just bluntly refuses to do so.

I talked in my last blog about the political culture in Jersey and, despite Senator Gorst being English, I think his answers prove a lot of my points.

He just isn't willing to talk about something that really we should be having a mass public debate on. He won't overtly say what he supports and won't explain why. What we need is to hear what people think and how they came to their views, so we can become more informed and make the best decision on polling day.

So I have written to him (in as nice a manner as I can) to explain this, as well as point out his mistakes on the significance of the Venice Commission and how Option B is totally incompatible with it, and potentially opens us to legal challenge.

Further to this, Deputy Southern has lodged an amendment to the referendum law, which essentially turns the referendum into a "yes" or "no" question on Option A. I hesitated as first over whether to get behind the amendment (on the basis that we shouldn't open the floodgates to cherry picking), but think that I am now convinced that it is worth supporting the amendment.


Dear Chief Minister,

I write to you having listened to your answers to questions about electoral reform at the States sitting on the 29th January. As a vocal proponent of electoral reform I am keen to find out the views of States Members and work out who can be considered allies for the campaign so that we can work together on a cross party basis and help frame a healthy debate.

You were asked by Deputy Southern whether you would be happy for a "no" vote/ vote for Option C, in the upcoming referendum. You declined to answer. Deputy Pitman then attempted to tease out from you an endorsement of Option B. Again, you declined to answer.

In an island that suffers from appallingly low voter participation rates, I really do not believe that it is healthy for our political culture for politicians to bluntly avoid answering questions that were quite reasonable. For the people of Jersey to have a good referendum campaign and be informed to make a good decision, there must be an open and frank dialogue with all parties talking about the issues and engaging in well mannered debate. If you have a point of view on the subject, you should have answered the question because ordinary islanders would have found it useful to hear a rationale for a particular point of view, and then consider it when deciding how they will vote.

If serious and important questions (like "what option do you support and why?") are not answered, it denigrates the whole debate. We need to be engaging, not ignoring.

I understand that as Chief Minister you and your Council of Minister colleagues are very busy and may not wish to detract from that by playing an overly active part in the reform debate. I would respect that position. But as Chief Minister, your duty is to enthusiastically take part in these questions sessions to be held accountable to the public through their elected representatives, and so I would like to ask in future if you could be a bit more frank with your opinions. I hope I do not come across badly for making that comment, but I do mean it to be well intentioned.

Further to that I just wanted to correct an answer you gave to a related question. The question was from Deputy Pitman on the importance of the Venice Commission and it's incompatibility with the Electoral Commissions proposed Option B.

Whilst the Venice Commission is, as you say, a "code of good practice", to not abide by it's recommendations essentially means Jersey is adopting a "bad practice" which is absolutely not the image we want to be getting across in the 21st Century where we should be promoting the island as a modern, dynamic and democratic society that is a good place to business in. Not one that struggles to comply with the most basic of democratic principles. 

The Venice Commission may not be legally binding, but the European Convention on Human Rights is, and under Protocol 1, Article 3, it is a fundamental right to have "regular, free and fair elections". A key component of a "fair election", as laid out in Article 21 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is "equal suffrage", which the Venice Commission seeks to define. So it is not correctly to imply that the commission has no legal significance, because it may well prove to be very persuasive in a human rights court.

You said that whilst the commission decreed that population figures should be used, they also said cultural, geographic and local authority boundaries could be used too. This is not strictly accurate in the way you meant it. The commission says that population comes first and that no constituencies population should deviate more than 10% from the average population. It only provides an exception to that on the basis you used, but not a total exception, it is qualified that it is still not more than a 15% deviation. It can only exceed 15% to protect minorities or in large sparsely populated areas. This means that the Parish boundaries are absolutely excluded from being used as single member constituencies, because the deviation figures are as follows -

Eligible voters
% Deviation from average
St Mary
St John
St Martin
St Ouen
St Peter
St Lawrence
St Clement
St Brelade
St Saviour
St Helier
61,891 – average - 5158

Not a single one of the Parishes falls into the Venice Commission's final limit of 15% for cultural reasons. They therefore cannot remain as an unaltered mechanism for electing single members to our national Parliament. Failing to provide a system that is in line with our human rights obligations opens Jersey up to legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights or UK courts which would, to put it bluntly, make our island look very strange and backwards to ordinary people in the world who will just think we are mad for not having a system that treats all voters as equals. This means it is fundamental that Jersey does not adopt Option B.

The fact that the option would be chosen in a referendum would not be a defence. A referendum is not democratic if the question is of an undemocratic nature. An overwhelming vote to disenfranchise left-handed people from voting, would not be considered democratic, just because it had been endorsed in a vote. Democracy is about much wider principles of equality and choice that every single person is entitled to on an equal and unqualified basis. Option B and Option C provide the island with systems that artificially create a greater voting power of the country areas over the urban areas. This is unacceptable. All islanders must be equal so that we can be a beacon of democracy and virtue to the rest of the world and not end up like Sark which is having to be bullied into the 21st Century by rich and unpopular oligarchs.

I hope you will consider these points for future questions in the States on electoral reform. I also hope these points could sway yourself and your colleagues to supporting Deputy Southern's amendment to the Referendum Law which will seek to eliminate Option B from the referendum and save Jersey from potential embarrassing legal challenge.

Samuel Mézec

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