Thursday, 18 July 2013

The States Referendum Proposals Vote: A Comment

The debate on the Referendum was bizarre, not least because it was brought by Privileges and Procedures, and yet more members were voting (and speaking) against the proposition brought by their own committee.

Had Andrew Green's proposition got through, it would have swung most of the Option A camp in support, but the hard-line Option B people were against anything other than the proposition as it stood, arguing that was the only one with a mandate. Sometimes it seems that common sense, and a notion of what might just work, goes out of the window. There has been a lot of talk about sticking to principles, but in this instance, sticking to principles is rather like putting the Titanic at full steam ahead towards an oncoming iceberg.

The Option C camp were against any form of the proposition, with or without amendments, but would have possibly lost had Deputy Green's proposal got through. It won the support (on Twitter / Facebook) of both Trevor Pitman and James Rondel, so it was a reconciliation option. Deputy Green is a Minister, and is not particularly known to have any specific ideological baggage. The trouble was the Option B camp who said "Option B or nothing", and ended up with nothing. Their conscience may be clear, but their sense of judgment is as good as Captain Smith on the Titanic.

So the good Ship of State struck the iceberg, and sank, much as had been predicted by the pundits. And that left Senator Le Marquand's proposal, which came in the event that the vote on the Referendum was lost.

But Deputy Philip Rondel had an interesting "Move to Next Item" supported by a lot of Option B people, to avoid Senator Le Marquand's proposition,  no doubt feeling that they needed time to re-organise. It didn't get through, and that left Senator Le Marquand's proposal, of which part (b) was passed:

"to request the Privileges and Procedures Committee to seek alternatives for reform of the Assembly."

It has been a set back for Senator Bailhache who stood as Senator on a Reform platform, grabbed an independent commission for the States (on the mantra "we can sort ourselves out better than an outsider"), and pushed through the Referendum. I think it was simply too rushed, hence bad choices, no "none of the above" option (so you had to stay away and not vote if you didn't like the options), and a dismal failure of turnout.

Quite what platform Senator Bailhache can stand on at the next election is uncertain, but his credibility with the public (already battered over the Plemont debacle) must have been damaged considerably. This is the man who said in his manifesto that "The reputation of the States in the Island has seldom been lower." On that basis, and his reform platform, he was given the task of chairing the Electoral Commission, and the end result of the vote means that the reputation of the States has probably sunk even lower than when he began.

My own feeling was that the Referendum was too rushed, and at the wrong time, and without enough choices. It would have been better to hold it at an election - that increased the vote on European Time which had a respectable turnout. When people are turning out to vote, an extra slip with simple questions is much more likely to be accepted.

And if it was an election issue, it would have had the advantage of appearing as an issue on hustings, generating extra interest, and less of a non-binding opinion poll, because politicians would be put on the spot before they were elected themselves.

The wording was also poor. The exclusion of the Senators, except as the status quo, put many people off voting at all. I was hoping for something like:

Super constituencies - yes / no
Constables - yes / no
Senators - yes /no

Then the outcome of that would determine the shape of the options for the States to vote on rather than being pre-determined, and excluding options from the start.

The proverb says that "Pride comes before destruction, and arrogance before a fall" (in its original form) and Senator Bailhache's conviction that he was the man for the job who could save the States too lacking in humility. He has certainly had a fall. And the face-saving apology to Deputy Pitman and the two businessmen, comes across as grudging and damaging; if he can't remember having confidential papers out to read on any flight, it shows someone who clearly doesn't have a razor sharp memory.

Can he escape by being "Foreign Minister" (or Minister in Charge of External Affairs, which is a title that I'm not sure any self-respecting politician would like to be saddled with (or are they just deaf to double innuendo?). It is a possibility. The figure of the "statesman" speaking to the UK and elsewhere might just get him back in the States at the next election. It was a card that Frank Walker played successfully when he managed to come in 5th place in the Senatorials. But he'll have to be careful - too much jet-setting could remind people of the jaunt on behalf of the Electoral Commission which really looked like an extravagant waste of money, and on which he went anyway, deaf to any public criticism.

The States are now hoping for a new PPC and something to vote on before next year. I'm not a betting man, but I don't think there is a hope of any changes in the membership of the house. The best that can be hoped for, which I gather Deputy Montfort Tadier, as Acting Chairman of PPC is working on, is a reform of the voting system.

The case for alternative votes, or single transferable votes, was accepted by the Electoral Commission, and won widespread support across all parties (A, B and C) as a much fairer way than first past the post, which is well known to produce unfair results - a number of eminent mathematicians such as Ian Stewart have proved this mathematically. So there's a good deal of hope for change. The Commission said:

"A Single Transferable Vote System should be introduced in elections for Deputy in 2018 and should the Constables remain as members of the States, an Alternative Vote System should be introduced in respect of their election.'

And the second reason why a change to voting systems could come is because the Parishes actually used an alternative voting system for the Referendum. It took slightly longer, but was surprisingly quick, and showed that even with manual counting systems, Jersey is quite capable of rising to that challenge. It has been a tried and tested option. The public have already been educated - at least as far as alternative voting was concerned, and the low number of spoiled papers showed they managed with ease. Sometimes politicians underestimate the intelligence of the voting public.

The final importance is that it means that every vote counts. First past the post wastes votes, which is another reason for low turnouts. But it would be ironic if the voting reform - which the Electoral Commission declared was something for next time, actually came into force before the reform of the membership of the States. That which was left out may turn out to be more significant than that which was voted out.

Deputy Tadier has not let the grass grow under his feet, and has already just lodged a proposition:

"to bring forward plans for the implementation of a single transferable voting  system (STV) for multi-member constituencies and an alternative voting (AV) system for single member constituencies in time for the 2014 elections."


Nick Le Cornu said...

STV and AV, bring it on!

Let’s hope the public get to hear Dr Renwick speak if he is invited to Jersey to inform States Members. He could also address us about the underrepresentation of St Helier and the Venice Commission guidelines on constituencies being of equal size, rarely more than 10% larger and never beyond 15%

There is now an evident sense of desperation following the failure of Option B. What is it about the 2014 elections, with 8 Senators, 12 Constables and 29 Deputies, that sends such a shiver down the spines of the 21 members that voted in favour? Could it be the single election day? There will be no second chances; Deputies is safe seats will not take the risk and step up for Senator whilst failed Senators have no bolt hole back to a safe Country Parish or low turnout St Helier District to save their career. There is a recognition that the post of Senator is dead in the water. Then there is the fact only 8 seats will be available for the existing 10 Senators. Some may retire, but standing for Senator is going to be very risky.

For a short seet moment the electorate can savor a temporary sense of panic amongst their rulers.

Global Citizen said...

"This is the man who said in his manifesto that "The reputation of the States in the Island has seldom been lower." On that basis, and his reform platform, he was given the task of chairing the Electoral Commission,"

Sorry Tony, that paints an incorrect picture of the situation.

A reader ignorant of the facts could take from your statement that the Electoral Commission was merely sitting and waiting for someone to be given the chairman's job, and Bailhache happened to arrive nicely fitting the bill.

Nothing could be more different.

Prior to Bailhache's election the States had voted and agreed to form an Electoral Commission free of political involvement, an independant commission.

After Bailhache was elected one of his first actions was to make moves to overturn that decision and see a new commission formed in line with his personal preference, with him at the helm and including political involvement, a politicised commission.

There's no doubt the latter turned a number of islanders away from voting in the referendum.