Thursday, 4 April 2013

Optional Matters

Apologies to Sam Mezec for misrepresenting him on my blog and in the JEP. Unfortunately the letter went out before I had the comments on my blog. Sam says "I have never said that Constables either will or will not be paid. I have always said that it will be up to each Parish on a case by case basis. That's the wonderful thing about the Parish system. If a Constable says he/ she doesn't want to be paid, then he/ she won't be. If one says that he/ she will need to be paid, then the Parishioners will have to decide and they are within their rights to go to Parish Assemblies and have their say and vote against it. Democracy!"

But that doesn't answer my other point: if there are two candidates, one who has private means and says he doesn't want to be paid, and one who says he would need to be, you are back in the situation where lack of means disenfranchises one individual. Like the old days when the States were not paid. Is it right that someone can effectively "bribe" the electorate by saying they don't need to be paid; they have enough independent wealth? Is that Sam's idea of democracy?

Incidentally, the JEP only put part of my letter online; I'd refer to my blog posting if you want a more detailed argument and do not have a JEP.  

The JEP does make this clear "The full version of this letter has been published in Tuesday's Jersey Evening Post".

On Facebook I read: "I want the constables to sit in the states as I believe that it is one of the main reasons why many of them stood in the first place.. I wouldn't want a constable who couldn't be bothered to sit in the states and fight his/hers parish's corner.. I don't want them having to go cap in hand to a district deputy who lives in another parish to beg for a vote in the states that affects their own parish..."

Sam Mezec commented on this "The other day the States spent a couple of hours debating a wall being moved at Green Island. Why does the Deputy of St Ouen (for example) have a right to debate something that only affects the people that live near Green Island? Surely that is something that should be dealt with in the Parish, not the States. Parish issues should be pushed out of the States and into the Parishes. When that is done, you won't need Parish representation in the States, only island representation."

But does it? Some of the arguments revolved around sea defenses, which should be a concern to all islanders, not just those in St Clement. is that a principle we should endorse, or a one off exception? For those concerned with climate change, it is more than just a Parish matter. In another example, Guy de Faye, as Planning Minister signed an order allowing a developer to force landowners to have utility companies dig through their properties. This was only in one Parish, but it had an island effect.

Another problem raised on Facebook is as follows: "But say for example a decision was being made on where to site some new development which presumably would be debated in the states. Under option A there could in theory be parishes with no representation from anyone living in that parish which would put them at a disadvantage."

Sam Mezec's response is that "If that Parish had a real problem with that development being in their Parish, they could call a Parish Assembly and all 7 of their districts Deputies (whether they lived in the Parish or not) would attend and have to fight that Parishes corner." Would they indeed?

Let us suppose the Deputies are elected in the constituency which includes St Mary, St Lawrence, St John and St Ouen. None of them live in St Mary, and all have previous ties to the other Parishes. That's not unlikely, as St Mary obviously has the smallest portion of the total vote. A development is planned in St Mary. Why on earth should the Deputies decide to fight the corner of St Mary? They may think it is a good thing; that it is time St Mary took on its share of development. There is no reason why they would have to either turn up to a Parish assembly in St Mary (where is any legal basis for their having to attend?) or fight St Mary's corner. I can't see that this statement of Sam's is anything but a kind of special pleading.

Sam also makes this statement about a bias in the Island plan: "For example, the Island Plan to a large degree limits development to St Helier. The Island Plan was able to get through because of the support of country Deputies and Constables, who were limiting developments to places that they don't represent. St Helier's 1 Constable would not be able to outvote the countries 8 Constables, even though St Helier's population is greater than all of them combined."

One of the main reasons behind the Island plan is to protect the green spaces where land is farmed. There is precious little of that in St Helier - there is no longer a spring running through Springfield -  and the move of older offices to the Esplanade has also left parts of St Helier ripe for a return from old houses converted to offices back into dwellings or replaced by modern dwellings. As it is, and as Mark Forskitt will explain, Jersey is not in any way self-sufficient in terms of own food production; we are dependent on supply lines, which can be costly and fragile. To remove the green zones would be to make the situation even worse.

Sam also says that "There should never have been a referendum in the first place. 10 years ago the States should have just adopted the Clothier recommendations and we wouldn't be in this mess." But while Clothier did favour one class of States member, and no Constables he did not want super-constituencies, he wanted to keep the Parish base. Option A doesn't do this.

And as Bob le Sueur pointed out, instead of voting for at least (back then) 6 Senators, 1 Constable and at least one Deputy, many Parishes would be down to just two or three to vote in. From 8 to 3 was a considerable reduction in choice, but Clothier assumed that a Party system would arise, no doubt because his main experience was the UK model of government. It was (as a friend told me) a form of "cultural imperialism", imposing another system on the local one as if it was somehow universally true.

Sam also says: "It is an inalienable human right that all people are free to take part in fair elections. Option B is an unfair system. If it wins, it will be thrown out by the human rights court or the UK. It matters diddly squat that the public voted for it."

So why has no one done anything about the current system which is also deemed to be an unfair system? Sam says it is because over 15 years, reform was in the air, and it would cost less! Given the failure of past proposals on reform, this seems to verge on extreme optimism.

15 years and all the failures would suggest that something should have been done ages ago; to raise the matter now seems more like electioneering spin, but we shall see. I can imagine the discussions which took place. "Shall we mount a legal challenge"? "No, there'll be another proposition for Reform in two years time, let's wait", "Well that was a missed opportunity, shall we now mount a legal challenge?" "No, there'll be another proposition for Reform in two years time"  etc etc. Talk about procrastination being the thief of time!

And Deputy Tadier tells me "A challenge in itself, whether successful or not, is not the kind of publicity Jersey should be seeking". But if it is right to challenge the status quo because it is unjust, should we let reputational damage be the final arbiter? I might expect that from former Senator Frank Walker; I'm surprised that Monty is making that argument. Maybe he should have a word with Sam!

So Option B will be challenged, Option C may be challenged - if the Referendum doesn't deliver Option A, but it has taken up to now (over 15 years) for any legal action to be proposed. People may go to their voting stations and have their say and vote against Option A. According to Sam, when Parishioners vote this way - "that's democracy!" - but when it is a Referendum, it is not. At this point, the A Team usually mentions that if a majority votes to outlaw red-heads or left-handed people, that would not be democratic, which is a typical straw man argument.

I'm not sure that having done nothing until now, it is a good strategy to threaten voters to vote for Option A or else! But that is the message coming across loud and clear. Personally, if I vote against Option A, at least one reason would be that I do not like being threatened. It strikes me as the sort of antics "Yes Minister" might describe as those of a "political thug". It is like saying "Vote A, because we have a loaded revolver waiting to be fired if Option B or C win."

I also look forward to the legal challenge, but perhaps we can have a few lawyer's advice (there must be some in Option A) on its likelihood of success. A legal opinion or two would do wonders for the credibility of this challenge. A lack of legal opinions does not inspire confidence.

Option C retains the Senators, and people like the Island Wide Mandate. Linda Corby said that "Everyone sitting in the States should be voted in by and island wide vote in my opinion, because they all vote on island wide issues." I've heard that proposal from a number of people, and it was turned down as unworkable by the Commission on the basis that (1) voting for that many people would be beyond the capability of the average voter (2) the hustings would be unworkable.

But is it quite as unrealistic as we are led to assume? The notion that you can't make choices of a large subset - say 30 Senators - is an assumption. It is not something which, as far as I can tell, has been demonstrated. There is something called "information overload" with regard to choices of products, but products are not people. If anyone has any experimental evidence relating to voting, it would be interesting to see it, but I have been unable to unearth any studies. Whether you can extrapolate from information overload on food packages or medical marketing to how people react when electing other people to represent them is questionable, but that seems to have been the first assumption made.

And the hustings might well be unworkable in their present form, but need we keep than form? In 1948, when 12 senators were all elected in one election - the first Senatorial election - the rounds of parish meetings which preceded the voting differed from modern elections in not having all the candidates present or speaking at each parish. If selected by lots for Parishes, people could attend the hustings they wanted to, and more time would be available for presentations and questions. In fact, hustings provide a very poor indicator today of electoral success; the main effect they have is to provide an opportunity for reporting in the media, which can of course be selective; it has to be, two hours has to be condensed into a few column inches, or one page of a website.

I'm not saying I'd promote that as an option, but I am saying that perhaps the assumptions made excluding those submissions calling for an Island wide mandate and Constables is not as impossible as it first appears. It may have been too swiftly dismissed.


James said...

But is it quite as unrealistic as we are led to assume? The notion that you can't make choices of a large subset - say 30 Senators - is an assumption. It is not something which, as far as I can tell, has been demonstrated.

It has, but not in Jersey.

I was a member of the PCS when I was a civil servant in the UK. Annual elections for the main council involved picking 20+ members.

The only way that members could reasonably guarantee to get in was to hitch up to one of the three blocs, so the electoral statement would read, "vote for me, and if you vote for me, vote also for A, B, C...". Most people didn't vote the whole list, but the unattached members never got in.

Nick Palmer said...

Excellent arguments, Tony, for getting rid of Constables and Deputies from the States and only having "Senators".

TonyTheProf said...

That's the option my survey is throwing up as what people want, and are asking why they can't have!