Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Attention Span: It's the Limit!

A question he had been meaning to ask for his own clarification popped into his head. 'Tell me, Ruther-or Mergrave... If this is the "condensed" history of Castrovalva, where is the full version?' The two Castrovalvans were amused by the question. 'The volumes before you contain a condensation of the actual history itself,' said Mergrave, and Ruther added: 'What you are pleased to call the full version has taken our ancestors centuries to live through. However fond you may be of reading, sir, you would not want to spend that long with a book.'(Castrovalva, Christopher H Bidmeade)

I've been looking at the Hansard transcript for the limits to speeches in the States, the proposition by Paul Routier (which failed on the 30 minutes for proposer, 15 minutes for members) and there are some gems. Please note that I've taken only sentences here and there; while the original speeches were, for the most part, less than 15 minutes, it is particular moments that I find stand out as quirky.

Deputy Trevor Pitman:

I know for a fact that Senator Routier is concealing his best white rabbit stopwatch behind his desk and he is going to be timing every one of us and no doubt telling us how long we have rambled on for

 It would, I think, unfortunately take out those little joyous moments when in a speech about the Waterfront Deputy Fox manages to remind us how much better Jersey was when we had a police motorcycle team or the Deputy of St. John manages to work in the main drains into some completely different debate.

Meanwhile, Deputy Paul Le Claire took us on a trip down memory lane. Things are not what they used to be.

I sat in St. Thomas' Church at the funeral of my late great uncle Gaston Le Miere last week and I heard a lady from Jersey, obviously from temps passé, who said she did not think the new Ministerial system was working well.  She complained about the salary levels of the Civil Service and she also said that she thought the old committee system was much better when there were several eyes on the issue and several views taken.

Deputy Montfort Tadier saw this as a reaction against one or two long speeches, which did not happen that often, and had led to a proposition which would penalise States members. He also managed to get in a quotation from Orwell, which the transcribers of Hansard got wrong, putting "Wilson Smith", instead of "Winston Smith" ( - it is now corrected -)  which gives a quite different image, if Orwell had based his hero on the somewhat sly and Machiavellian Harold Wilson!

I think what has happened is somebody has identified what they perceive as a problem for themselves, perhaps against one or 2 individual States Members, and they are trying to bring in draconian and unnecessary legislation to cater for what they perceive is a minority problem, which is going to have a nefarious effect on the rest of us.

My favourite quote from the book 1984 is: "Sanity is not statistical" which is quoted by Winston Smith, and those who are aware of the work by Orwell will remember that he is pretty much the only sane one, or the only sane one that we know about, in a world of mad people.  Sometimes it can feel like that for States Members and it might be necessary, as I have said, to come up with a speech and if you have heard 52 arguments, which you think are completely speechless and spurious, you may well want to address all of those and you should be quite entitled to do that in order to deconstruct the arguments and if you allow, let us say, even 30 seconds for each of those 52 arguments you are already approaching half an hour which is a lot longer than the 15 minutes which Senator Routier is proposing.

Deputy K.C. Lewis of St. Saviour came up with an interesting definition of a speech and lecture:

If a Member speaks for up to 15 minutes that is a speech; 1 and a half hours and above, that is a lecture.

I'm not at all sure this is valid at all. A speech can be short, but it can also be long. The London Illustrated Times had a letter which noted that: "Every one knows, on his rising, when Mr. DISRAELI means to make a long speech. When he only intends to offer a few Interlocutory remarks he leans over the table, speaks in a low tone to the gentlemen opposite, and shows by his manner of standing and speaking that he intends soon to sit down". And the the longest continuous Budget speech was by William Gladstone on 18 April 1853, lasting 4 hours and 45 minutes. No one said those were lectures. What differentiates a speech from a lecture? Surely it is that a lecture is a special kind of speech, to an audience, on a subject, which may have a question and answer session afterwards. A speech in the States is opening up the debate, or making points along the way. It may share some similarities to a speech; it may cite facts, make arguments. But it is not given by one person, who has the floor, and who people have come to listen to. Speeches in the States may instead say some very unwelcome things; the case of Harcourt and their court case in Nevada is one example. A lecturer, on the other hand, addresses, for the most part, an audience who have come to hear him.

Senator Sarah Ferguson

Basically, to get back to the subject, I think this particular proposition limits free speech, which is one of our basic freedoms.  In business, or in Scrutiny Reports, you may have a superb 50-page report but Members are busy people and will only read the executive summary.  I do have hopes of Senator Perchard venturing deeper into the Corporate Services Report, but I concede that he is a busy man.  [Laughter]

Connétable P.F.M. Hanning of St. Saviour was short and succinct, and said nothing of substance at all. This was all he said, and we have no idea what parts of what had been said that he actually agreed with.

Very briefly, most of what I was going to say has been said in the previous ramblings and therefore I am not going to repeat it.

Deputy Bob Hill of St. Martin came out with some comments on the lengths of speeches, and a comment on Deputy Routier's habit at the moment of having restrictive propositions which seek to place limits on what backbenchers can do.

This is the eleventh speaker this morning in just under the hour so we are averaging about 6 minutes a speech

Earlier on this year Senator Routier brought a proposition to the States asking to have 7 signatures for anyone signing a proposition and one of the reasons that came up in the debate was it was to stop someone waking up in the morning thinking: "Oh, I will bring a proposition to the States."  Well, now I know what Senator Routier is on about; I think he woke up one morning and said: "Well, maybe I will bring a proposition to stop people speaking" so that is what we got.  It is very much like that.

Connétable Len Norman of St. Clement came out with some extraordinary pictures of what long speeches meant - members going off for haircuts, or a cabal of Constables!

In fact, I welcome some of the longer speeches that we have enjoyed recently; it gives some Members time to go for a haircut or visit the dentist, without missing anything significant. 

In the future, for example, you could have a group of deflective and maverick Members - probably Constables, following that description - who might decide for whatever reason to disrupt the proceedings of the States and arrange for each of them to speak for an hour or 2 hours on any and every debate, which would totally disrupt the progress and business of the States.

The Deputy of St. John, Phil Rondel managed to get a mention of main drains sneaked in after all:

When this first came out and Deputy Routier mentioned this I thought: "Yes, that probably is a good idea to have a limit on speeches" but when you go home and you think about it you think: "No, I am here to represent the people of St. John and anybody else who wants to contact me - and they do - to represent their views" because I am an elected Member.  Because it may take me ... it is not often I speak for longer than 10 or 15 minutes, very rarely, but it might be an occasion to do with main drains.

Deputy Daniel Wimberley took Deputy Norman to task for his frivolity, and asked for speeches with some substance, not collections of pithy aphorisms:

Of course most speeches in this House are short.  They are short and of course they are because most issues do not need too much to say, but sometimes I feel I am being short-changed and I would take up Deputy Le Hérissier's comments saying you can be short, you can be punchy, concise, to the point and so on, but sometimes when I listen to the good Deputy I feel I have had a break and had a Kit Kat.  I just wish that I could have a meal.

I just wanted to make one more point about the going out for a haircut.  It is quite a nice line, is it not?  "Let us go out for a haircut because someone is going to talk for a long time."  I wonder how many people were out for a haircut when the euro fiasco went through the States, nobody asked the question, and nobody had done the research, and bang went £8 million.

Senator Jim Perchard decided to comment on the longest speeches - interestingly he called them speeches rather than lectures:

It is possible that someone could speak for hours.  Henry Peter Brougham on 7th February 1828 spoke in the House of Commons for 6 hours on law reform.  The longest speech ever was 124 hours - 5 days and 4 nights - by a Frenchman, Lluis Colet, and he spoke about Salvador Dali.

He was pulled up by Deputy M. Tadier who asked:

I have a question of clarification.  Senator Perchard mentioned the Frenchman who is Lluis Colet who spoke for 124 hours about Salvador Dali, but could the Senator confirm that that person was not a politician, it was just somebody who set a world record for that particular purpose and it is perhaps misleading to suggest, in this context, that he was a politician filibustering.

Senator J.L. Perchard:

I am not sure of the profession of Mr. Colet but I did give the subject matter of his speech.

In fact, the 62-year-old Catalan and local government worker Lluis Colet spoke for five straight days and four nights (124 hours) about Spanish painter Salvador Dali, Catalan culture and other topics-setting the world record for the Longest Speech. But this was not a parliamentary speech at all!  Colet began speaking at Perpignan's railway station by reciting the works of famous authors or using some of his own writing. He also spoke profusely about Dali, a painter he admires, and Catalan culture.  Large crowds turned out in support of Colet, who received a rapturous applause at the end of his speech.

Deputy Geoff Southern looked at some of the more bizarre illustrations of speeches by Len Norman and Jim Perchard, and had some fun with them:

[The statement] from Constable Norman,  was the most absurd premise I have ever heard: "I am going to vote for this proposition because it is possible that the entire bank of Constables will stage some sort of coup each speaking for 2 hours and block some vital piece of legislation in a revolutionary way." I look forward to the day when it happens.  It would be the equivalent of Scheherazade 1001 Knights, and I look forward to hearing a Constable speak for 2 hours on any particular topic at all.  I would be a privileged man if I heard that.

Then we had the possibility from Senator Perchard and, again, equally specious of the possibility of someone holding this Chamber to ransom with a 124 hour speech on Salvador Dali.  [Laughter]

Connétable Mike Jackson of St. Brelade looked at attention spans. It reminded me of some sermons I had heard at Exeter University, which were at least 20 minutes, sometimes 30 minutes. Someone complained, and the Chaplain, Ken Moss, said that students at a University should be expected to have a better attention span that the rest of the population, who needed shorter sermons because they couldn't concentrate for so long. I've looked at this online, and the average student's attention span, according to one authority, is between 15 and twenty minutes. I also came across a note that "the typical attention span for a 4-year-old is only about five to ten minutes, and while this may seem short, it is usually a huge improvement from the three-to-four-minute attention span most 3-year-olds have", which is interesting, given Mike Jacksons comments about "the order of ten minutes"!

Some Members adopt a lecturing style, and I do not believe this is the appropriate Chamber for that.  It is a debating chamber and I think a debate needs short succinct speeches.  I think one of the most fundamental points for Members to consider is that of attention spans.  My understanding, and I think was alluded to by Deputy Tadier earlier on, that this is in the order of 10 minutes. 

Deputy M. Tadier came in on Mike Jackson making a point on longer speeches costing money:

Can I ask for clarification on a point?  The Constable implied that longer speeches cost the States more money.  Can he justify that statement?

The Connétable of St. Brelade:

Yes, indeed.  The presence of this House sitting in this Chamber costs money in terms of transcription time, officer time sitting here, and I think that is quite important to consider.

Senator Philip Ozouf made the point that longer preparation meant shorter speeches, and Deputy of St. Mary, Daniel Wimberley, took up that point and asked who was doing the preparation for Minister's speeches; evidently not always the Minister themselves:

Can I ask a point of clarification?  The speaker is quite correct that more time on preparation the shorter the speech may be, does that mean that Ministers are going to write their own speeches from now on so that there is a level playing field?

Senator P.F.C. Ozouf:

Ministers are asked by this Assembly to carry out functions on behalf of the States of Jersey.  I write a lot of my own speeches but I do get assistance in preparing some of the set piece speeches in business plans and budgets.  I think that if the Deputy of St. Mary was in my position he would expect that too in the work commitments and what we have to do.  So I do not think the criticism is fair.  Ministers work hard and their speeches are delivered on their own work in large measure.

Deputy M. Tadier then came in with a very sharp question about costs. Obviously if the civil servants are preparing the speeches, then that's costing money as well:

I have a point of clarification about something that was raised in Senator Ozouf's speech.  He mentioned that the shorter the speech ... a short speech might require hours of preparation time.  Now, if that preparation is being done by civil servants how much are these short speeches likely to cost the taxpayer?

Deputy John Le Fondré of St. Lawrence thought that the limits section (b) was impossible, and gave the example of the Island Plan:

I think I am slightly losing the will to live.  I think, in essence, firstly I will try and drag us back to, I think it was, Senator Ferguson expressing her unease on the whole subject and that is where I am.  Fundamentally I do not think I will support any of it.  I am slightly ambivalent on the suggestions by Senator Perchard.  I think part (b) is inherently flawed anyway, although it might be of attraction to at least one Member because, for example, it makes specific reference to the Strategic Plan, the Annual Business Plan or the Budget but, for example, leaves out the Island Plan.  Unless Senator Cohen or the Minister for Planning and Environment is going to present all, I think, 11 sections of the Island Plan in 30 minutes ... which he may be able to do it in 5.

Senator F.E. Cohen piped up with "I could try.". I bet he doesn't though!

Deputy Sean Power also came in on this, and challenged Senator Routier, again coming in with the 10 minute rule of thumb:

I would issue this challenge to Senator Routier, comparing it to what happened to me.  I brought the Residential Tenancy Law through the States in the middle of 2009 and I think when I calculated the amount of time I spent in proposing the proposition, then replying in the debate, I was about 4.5 hours on my feet all told.  I would suggest that Senator Routier, when he brings the migration policy to the States, I would think he would be a better man than me if he can do it in 45 minutes because it is such a massive piece of legislation that is about to hit this Assembly.  Somebody referred to the principle and discipline of churches and rectors, ministers, priests and whatever, most of them are advised that you do not hold people's concentration for more than 10 minutes, and I think it is a very good rule.

I came across this when looking at attention spans:

A child's attention span is normally related to his/her age. On an average it is two to five minutes per year of the child's age. A ten year old child should normally be able to focus on the job at hand for anything between thirty minutes to an hour. This for some reason does not relate to watching television.

And substitute "politicians" for "children", and this could almost be a description of the States:

Children with short attention spans are likely to be impatient while listening, waiting for their turn to speak and have a hard time returning to an unfinished task once they are interrupted.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Connétable P.F.M. Hanning of St. Saviour was short and succinct, and said nothing of substance at all.

And when was the last time that he did say something of substance?