Thursday, 25 February 2016
Post-People's Park Reflections
I had expected Tuesday to be a fairly ordinary day in the States Assembly. Okay, we had a pretty controversial item on the agenda for debate, but I suspected the vote wouldn't happen until the next day after hours of painful debate, which happens from time to time.
Question time was pretty standard, but quite enjoyable too. I was on fire (if I do say so myself) having researched the night before for parts of hansard which showed the Treasury and Infrastructure Ministers having either U-turned on their policies since the election or, worse, having outright lied about those policies in the first place. The Health Minister clearly got rattled by one of my questions which he refused to answer, claiming it was a hypothetical question, despite the presiding officer confirming that the question was perfectly in order.
Whilst getting stuck into the ministers I barely even noticed that there were prolonged periods of time where the senators benches was more or less empty as all the ministers left the chamber. I guess I just assumed that they had drunk a few too many cups of tea during their pre-States meeting/ prayer/ meditation (or whatever it is they get up to beforehand) and had synchronised their comfort breaks.
Little did I know that the Council of Ministers was having emergency meetings as they knew they were dealing with a mutiny on their hands.
Just as the debate on People's Park was due to begin and hundreds of Islanders were gathering in the Royal Square the Health Minister Senator Andrew green stood up (looking damn miserable it has to be said) and announced that the government had decided to take People's Park off the shortlist of potential sites for the new hospital.
Victory for the people, victory for democracy and victory for Jersey!
I didn't stick around to hear the rest of his statement. I ran straight outside to the square and got the crowds attention for Deputy Hilton to announce the decision to the public.
Huge cheers, hundreds of hugs and handshakes and I'm pretty sure I saw a few tears too.
On the 150th anniversary of Francois Godfrey gifting People's Park to the people of St Helier, we won the battle to keep the park free for the people to enjoy for generations to come.
There has been a lot of analysis of this move over the past few days and pretty much all of it has been totally wrong, so I'm going to try to set the record straight.
The first myth to debunk is that "the government finally listened to the people."
It would be nice to believe this, but it simply isn't true.
The hansard for question time will show that the Council of Ministers was determined to go ahead opposing the campaign to save People's Park right up until the last minute.
By the time the States was in session all of the lobbying from the public was finished. They were continuing to justify their position throughout the morning.
What provoked them to change their stance was a series of emails from various States Members informing the ministers that they had changed their minds and decided to back the campaign.
The Council of Ministers themselves ignored the public. The only people they listened to were the members who were usually loyal. They did the maths and realised they were going to lose the vote.
Better to back down rather than face the embarrassment of losing.
The evidence of this is the sheer indignation in every nuance of Andrew Green's manner since this happened. He hasn't backed down with dignity in my view. He deserves the credit for taking the right decision in the end, but his leadership is damaged irreparably.
The government did not listen to the public. It was the backbenchers, a handful of Constables and a handful of assistant ministers who listened to the public and forced the government to change their position.
The next myth is one which is paradoxically being propagated by the mainstream media and it is that "a vocal minority has denied a choice the silent majority."
I mean, honestly, get real.
This campaign was representative of the public and all the evidence both statistical and anecdotal proves it.
Yes, I'm sure there are some people who disagreed. That's fine and that's democracy. But they were a tiny minority.
5,000 signatures for our petition is more than they'll get responses to the public consultation, I'm absolutely certain of that.
But how strange it is for the media to have turned so quickly after a few weeks of them being so supportive! You could always count on them to turn a huge victory for democracy into something to be negative and cynical about.
Lessons to be learnt
The key thing I have taken from this experience is that every single person who told us along the way "you're wasting your time", "it won't make a difference" or "they never listen anyway" was absolutely wrong.
The campaign made a huge difference and organised the most effective lobbying on a political for a very long time.
It was the emails, the phone calls and the conversations in the street that swung enough States Members to change their position that achieved this.
Those people who told us they agreed with us but wouldn't support us because they thought it was a waste of time were essentially the greatest allies the Council of Ministers could have hoped for. Our victory was despite these people and would have come quicker if they hadn't taken this totally counterproductive attitude.
This campaign showed what can be done when people come together (whatever side of the political spectrum they are on) to positively push forward on something that matters to people.
It worked and it can work again in the future.
I can only hope that this victory will have energised people and swept away the cynicism that plagues our political discourse.
Next time we ask for the public to get behind a new campaign for an important cause and we're told "what's the point, they never listen" we can say "they listened on People's Park".