Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Option A, In Depth

for longer than I can personally remember, Jersey has been beset by a widespread concern that the machinery of government does not function quite so well for us as we could expect, from the examples of how it functions elsewhere. Thus, we have had, in recent years, the Clothier fiasco and now the Bailhache Commission, looking to make much-needed improvements.

A decade ago, the public's leading grumble was inefficiency: All those members putting their 2d-worth into everything, slowing down the pace and sometimes even forcing the cancellation of rash schemes. However, we weren't careful enough in what we wished for. Now we have Ministerial government and the Troy Rule, concentrating power at the expense of diminishing control, and leaving a majority of Members on the back-benches, constitutionally barred from the work they actually sought to do. Meanwhile, they continue to be derided for perceived inefficiency.

The focus of concern has moved on, though, to the question of how we end up with the politicians we do, anyway. And so, we have had the Bailhache Commission. They have given us four options, none altogether satisfactory, and passed the buck back to the voting public for the next stage, although the final decision will not be ours.

The Commission have, inexplicably, demanded that any reform of electoral process be yoked to an arbitrary reduction in the size of the House. This is hugely problematical: Already, Ministers and Assistant Ministers are unable to oversee their Departments with anything like the thoroughness of the traditional Committees that they replaced. Reducing the number of Members, with a pro-rata decrease in Assistant Ministers, will only aggravate that problem. A 42 member States will soon find themselves torn between three problems. The Executive can keep power at the expense of control, as all the decisions pile up on a reduced number of desks, or they can abandon the Troy Rule, and its theoretical check on executive excess, to bring enough politicians back into government to keep the workload down, at risk of idealogical dilution, or they can urgently add a seat or even two per constituency, to make a 48 or 54 member House that can sustain a 25 or 28 member executive within the Troy Rule.

All that should not really have been part of the question, but as it has been wrongly made so, we must take it into account.

I deliberately wrote that we have been offered four options, despite there being only three on the ballot paper. There is a fair groundswell of support for “Option D”, the implicit fourth choice of abstention, whether passively by boycotting the poll, or actively by spoiling the paper. In favour of this choice, it does send the message that none of the others met people's hopes. On the other hand, it is open to being spun as a sign of indifference, and, if it is the dominant response, the States are likely to regard it as carte blanche  to please themselves.

Worse still is Option C, to positively endorse remaining with the system that is failing us. No doubt it would be a relief to sitting States Members to know that their seats will still be there, should they want re-election, but it would completely fail to deal with the inequalities of votes and mandates that discredit the States in the eyes of so many electors.

Yet even Option C looks good in comparison with Option B. The new constituencies can be considered when I look at Option A, but the glaring feature of Option B is the increased emphasis on the role of Constables in the States. I know of no other place in the world where free places in parliament are automatically given to local municipal mayors, as Constables would be described elsewhere. If we had the best government on Earth, then we would have a case for taking pride in this being part of our winning recipe. However, the starting point for the whole reform issue is that our government is conspicuously failing to measure up to its peers at present. So, what might we be doing wrong here? One of the most obvious things is clogging up a quarter of the places in the legislature with people with a primary duty to another level of administration, to the detriment of their work for both. The claimed justification that they are there specifically to represent those other levels is misguided, to say the least. Nowhere else does it, and nowhere else has a problem with local government arising from not doing it. I do not believe that there is something uniquely feeble about Jersey's parishes, that would make them wither, were they to gain their Constables' undivided attention. Option B would aggravate the problem, by reducing only the number of Members without split commitments.

A further drawback of the Constables' continuing membership of the States is, that the community standing and knowledge of the municipal administration that go to make a good Constable do not necessarily go together with the outlook on larger issues that a voter might wish for in his States representative. For example, in the UK, with its clear and unmuddled separation of tiers, it is not uncommon for the Liberal Democrats to be a town's party of choice for the local council, despite sending another party's candidate to Westminster.

Finally, my reverse tour up the ballot paper stops at Option A. As I noted above, the reduction of numbers to 42 is a mistake that will be regretted, should we choose to go down this road. However, the six-constituencies for all members elected on similar mandates is a massive improvement. I liked having 12 Senators I could vote for, but their numbers are being cut anyway, so the possibility of voting on over a quarter of the places in the States has already been lost to us. The big multi-member constituencies maintain a large fraction of the choice, though, and would improve matters by removing “rotten boroughs” that send Members, be they Deputies or Constables, to the House on so few votes that their credibility forever suffers scornful comparison with those there by the choice of thousands. These are the issues the Electoral Reform Commission was established to address, and Option A is, by and large, a remedy.

Despite the unwise cut in numbers, option A is the only one to bring us up to the expectations of a modern Western democracy, and we need to send the message to the States by going out and voting for it. We shall just have to hope then, that the States then implement the voters' choice, but exercise some discretion about the reductions, which they well might, considering the cliché about turkeys and Christmas that perennially haunts the subject.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Option A, in a nutshell

Despite the superficial fairness, the even-handed offering of retention of Constables or both Constables and Senators as alternatives could be interpreted by voters as implying that they, too, would be equally acceptable outcomes.

There are strong grounds for endorsing Option A, the six multi-Deputy constituencies without Constables. Only the first option delivers a House in which all Members are specifically elected to do the job by a comparable electorate and all voters have a fair and equal say in choosing their Members.

The second option provides only 30 Members unencumbered by the running of a parish, while the part-timers would hold equal power from fewer, and in some cases far fewer, votes; one of principal flaws of the status quo that the reform should be addressing.

Even choosing to stay with the present unsatisfactory system after all would be better than Option B, although it would be a sad waste of an opportunity to both make a real improvement and close the subject for the long term.