The Interim Report of the Electoral Commission is now out, and I've just been reading it. It was surprising good in a number of places, and it will be interesting to see what Daniel Wimberley makes of its main principles, which I think are good ones.
. All electors should have the same number of votes.
. Constituencies should as far as possible be of broadly equal size.
. A candidate should generally require a significant number of votes in order to be elected to the Assembly.
. The electoral system should be simple, fair and easy to understand
It is good too, that the decision on the Constables rests, in part, with the people in a Referendum, although I would like the States - rather like a pre-nuptial agreement - vote to be bound by the results of the Referendum before it goes ahead.
Here are the points and my comments:
(1) That the number of elected members in the States be reduced to 42.
Almost all those making submissions to the Commission agreed that there were too many States members. The size of the States Assembly is greater than that of other legislatures with similar populations. An analysis of tasks performed by States members shows that the current system of government and scrutiny would work with 42 members although this would mean that there would need to be fewer Ministers and Assistant Ministers.
I do not think that the number of Ministries can be reduced easily unless there is enough overlap of function. Given the amount of overseas promotion the Treasury Minister does which was formerly done by the Minister for Economic Development (albeit by the same individual States member!), it would certainly be possible to subsume Economic Development as a department of the Treasury. There is a clear overlap of functions. But whether such a monolithic Treasury is desirable is another matter.
One of the key problems is that distinct departments were place together under Ministerial government, but continued to run pretty much as separate entities. The cliché of "joined up" government for improving administration by sharing resources has only just begun to take place, as with, for example, the Harbours and Airports. And it can lead to conflicts of interest. When an issue is both a planning matter, but perhaps there is a conflict with an environmental one as well, how does the Minister fairly effect the judgement of Solomon on the two sides?
It may be worth dovetailing the number of Assistant Ministers with the PPC review of Machinery of Government, which was asking if Assistant Ministers could serve on Scrutiny Panels that were not scrutinising their particular Ministry. That would avoid reducing the number of Assistant Ministers, and would provide greater overlap with Scrutiny. Effectively, this means that Scrutiny would resemble in some ways the old Committee system, and provide a training ground for members while not causing delays in the way Ministerial government operates.
(2) That the Island be divided into six large districts each electing either 7 representatives ("Deputies") or, if the Constables remain in the States, 5 representatives ("Deputies").
Guernsey has districts, but of 6 or 7 members. The aim is to get a best fit for electoral parity. If the boundaries proposed by the commission can do this with the same number of Deputies per district, I think it's a good idea, but I would warn against being to fixated on the same number per boundary, if the boundaries are grouped Parishes. Demographic changes, while minimised by larger districts, may yet mean that a better fit of electoral parity (each deputy representing x voters) can be produced with a difference of one.
For example, the current presentation has an average of 1,845 or 2,584 (for no Constables and Constables respectively) which yields a standard deviation of 152 and 213. Changing the pattern so that district 3 (the largest) gained one Deputy and District 5 (the smallest) lost one Deputy would give a standard deviation of 81 and 170. A low standard deviation indicates that the data points tend to be very close to the average (mean), whereas high standard deviation indicates that the data points are spread out over a large range of values. The difference between maxima and minima of the ranges would also reduce (from 415 and 582 to 243 and 457).
Given the small numbers involved, I think the benefits of the same Deputies per district probably outweighs that of a smaller deviation from the mean, but it is something a future boundaries commission might bear in mind.
(3) That the public should decide in a referendum whether or not the Constables should remain members of the States.
This is an excellent decision. I am (as my readers will be aware) in favour, for the time being, of retaining the Constables, but views on this seem very divided between voters, and it is to the Commission's credit that it has made this a matter for the public to decide.
The States should, however, vote before any referendum - that they will accept the result of the referendum as binding, otherwise it will be a waste of time, effectively an expensive opinion poll which States members can overturn.
4) That the decisions of the States to move to a 4-year term of office and a general election should be affirmed
This seems to have come through on most of the submissions I have seen, and it make a lot of sense, given that the longer Senatorial positions will be abolished. As I pointed out in a blog posting, the move to same day elections makes the position of Senator a risky venture, and one Deputy who had been planning to stand told me that she had changed her mind as a result of that change. It also ensures that Chief Ministers come from the recently elected, and the position whereby a Chief Minister could be elected part the way through a term of office (and in both instances stood down before facing the public on their record in power) must have contributed to public disillusionment.
5) That the introduction of a transferable voting system might ensure a fairer electoral system. The Commission will be undertaking further research into this matter in the coming weeks before reporting in December 2012.
This is an interesting change, and I think it would require some kind of electronic voting system to cope with the complexities involved. But perhaps it is time for a change, and for voting to move into the 21st century. Systems which were developed in the past, when time consuming counts by hand were the only option, should surely be reconsidered. In this respect, Pierre Horsefall's hearing with the Committee probably put the argument for transferable voting in its strongest and clearest form. If it was possible, and apart from initial costs, not expensive to maintain, it would be a good option. It is good that the Commission have not ruled this out.
6) That steps should be taken to strengthen parliamentary democracy and in particular to ensure that draft legislation is properly scrutinized before enactment. The Commission will also be undertaking further research in this area before making a final recommendation.
This holds two options, and I'll comment on one:
One means of ensuring proper legislative scrutiny would be to create a second chamber, or Senate, where a small number of members, acting in an honorary capacity, could perform this important function. In other jurisdictions it is said that a second chamber is a useful check and balance to the power of the lower house.
It can be, but the UK history - up to the time of the Parliament Act reducing the power of the Lords - shows that a second Chamber with too extensive powers can cause problems in impeding, filibustering or stopping legislation that may have a popular mandate and be practical for ideological reasons. This can also be seen in the USA, where Obama's legislative reforms such as improved medical care have met with resistance from the Senate.
How the members of the Second Chamber are elected, appointed, and what powers they may have is not clearly fleshed out in this proposal, and while the Commission wishes to give further consideration, I would recommend that the Second Chamber did not have an absolute ability to veto legislation. Also while "an honorary capacity" suggest no expense, in practice there may be an honorarium offered to cover expenses.
Clearly, if the Constables were excluded from the States, this would be an obvious place for them to be, to bring Parish insights into legislation, and might be no bad thing, always providing they were providing a scrutiny oversight to ensure that important Parish matters were not overlooked, and not able to impede or filibuster legislation.
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