Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Don't ruin a body that was to give everyone a voice to be heard

Once again, Deputy Wimberley's letters are missing from the JEP online version, so if you don't get the JEP, here's a place to read them. Online space is cheap compared to print, so why are some letters chosen and others not - there seems to be no rhyme or reason outside of the editor's own bias.

This letter is on States Reform. We hear a lot about Senator Bailhache being elected on a "platform of reform", and therefore being the person most suited to lead the task. This is a new argument, as when Senator Vernon Tomes entered the States, also on a platform of reform, he was sidelined to the back benches until he had given up on the idea. The same is true of Stuart Syvret, Ted Vibert, and going back in time, for those of us with long memories, John de Carteret.

Time and again we have been told that just because the public places someone on top of the poll, that gives them no special privileges or legitimacy. That is something which has been singularly lacking on the debate about Senator Bailhache's suitability, and instead, we are told that as a poll-topper, he has a special mandate to do this which should be complied with by the States.

Moreoever, the policy of reversing decisions recently past and changing the terms of reference of the review surely opens up a whole can of worms. If a precedent is set that decisions by the previous States, passed less than six months previously, can be put asunder, what is to stop re-opening the debate about spending cuts, especially the draconian measures taken and approved with regards to sports in Jersey?

As Senator Bailhache is the first to admit, he has expressed opinions. He argues that does not commit him to a particular position. But surely an independent commission would remove all shadow of doubt on that score, so that he would be free to make his own submission, with no perceived conflict of interest?

Don't ruin a body that was to give everyone a voice to be heard.
From Daniel Wimberley.

THE version of the Electoral Commission put forward by the Privileges and Procedures Committee is a complete and utter mockery of the original proposal passed by the States.

Deputy Le Hérissier amendments, though welcome, do not go far enough. The question now is: can the commission be saved?

The commission was there to serve Islanders. Its job was to make democracy better in Jersey, to give fair representation to all (at the moment, the country is vastly over-represented and the urban areas are under-represented), to try to reflect shades of public opinion accurately in the States (which our first-past-the-post voting system fails to do), to allow voters to influence who gets to be in government, and thus to improve accountability and get away from the appalling mantra of 'I don't vote, it does not make any difference.'

The commission was to be independent and was to look at all the issues in the round before coming up with a package to be put to a referendum.

The commission would lead a debate across the Island on the issues. External experts would ensure that the process was kept free from bias, and give advice on technical issues. All perfectly straightforward - All perfectly fair. The Island gets what it needs at a cost, incidentally, of less than 4p for each resident for each of the 50 years the new elections system should last.

So what do Privileges do? They butcher the proposals. In so doing, they appear to put vested interests above the public interest, and they put at risk the reputation of the States itself.

Privilege's proposals are extraordinary. They want to put three States Members onto the commission, one of these being the chairman, to remove any external oversight of the process and to cut out half of the terms of reference.

In doing so, they have destroyed the commission's independence, they have ensured that the public will mistrust the results, and they have made its job impossible.

To his credit, Deputy Le Hérissier amendment tries to undo the damage. It would remove the politicians from the electoral Commission and restore the terms of reference. This is good as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. It does not tackle the removal of outside expertise, and this is the real prize for those who are intent on killing off the commission.

Outside expertise is vital. Last year Privileges correctly pointed out the danger of any commission with an all- local lineup: 'This option has the disadvantage that the local members may all come with predetermined positions and it may be difficult to identify local residents who would have the necessary interest and expertise in this subject without bringing strong preconceived ideas about the way forward.'

There is nothing wrong in this, but it does point out the need for checks and balances, for external eyes. Our police, social services and the prison are inspected from outside, and we get outside advice on our fiscal policy. And all for very sound reasons: to ensure impartiality, transparency and best practice.

The outside experts should not sit on the commission itself, but form an independent advisory panel. This cuts out the expense of travelling and accommodation, adds flexibility and opens up a bigger pool of expertise for us to choose from.

Each major step of the commission's work, for example, the overall outline plan for public consultation, or their initial statement as to what the issues are, should go to the panel for comment.

This comment would be in writing, open and public.

The response of the commissioners, accepting or rejecting that advice and giving their reasons, would likewise be in writing, open and public. Any technical advice would also be on the record. This transparent external quality assurance is the people's guarantee that the process is not being manipulated in any way.

Anyone looking at this episode from outside the Island, (which may very well happen, given the great interest in tax havens and offshore finance centres these days) would quickly conclude that the establishment has been trying to rig the process of reform for their own advantage. This must not be allowed to happen, for the sake of democracy and for the sake of our reputation.

I hope that a States Member proposes a further amendment to ensure that the process has independent outside scrutiny and technical advice. Nothing less is good enough for a commission whose work will set the framework for our democracy for the next 50 years.


Anonymous said...

We our mangled electorial system we don't know whether 17,538 people voted for him as their 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th choice. So we can't gauge the strength of support for his proposals.

Anonymous said...

I quite agree. Listening to Bailhache on Radio Jersey the other morning on the position of the Constables and the Electoral Comm. He implied almost everyone wants Constables to remain in the States and needed reminding on the MORI poll results on that one. IMO, he has an agenda.

If only establishment people like him would wake up to the fact that the world is changing and people want real democracy, representation and transparency.