Friday, 18 April 2014

Presidential Politics

Is Jersey moving towards a Presidential style of politics?
 
There are two proposals which give rise to concern, especially in a small jurisdiction, where power is delicately balanced between two bodies - the Council of Ministers and the States Assembly.
 
From time to time criticised, it is the Troy rule which helps to keep the balance between the two and ensures that the Executive cannot run roughshod over the Assembly. There has to be a degree of consensus in the way the States operates.
 
This has, however, been reduced in part by the ability of Ministers to make decisions without having to bring them to the Assembly. It is to the credit of Ian le Marquand that there was a proposition on the introduction of tazers, and a debate by the Assembly. It could quite easily, and quite legally, just slipped through as a Ministerial decision.
 
Ministerial decisions can be viewed on the gov.je website, but you have to go and look for them. It would be helpful, I think, if a list of them were prefixed to Hansard, like the written questions and answers, so that they would be instantly available. Otherwise, they have a tendency - as happened with the change of IT policy - to slip through under the radar, undebated, not scrutinised, and for the most part unreported. This is not good for democracy.
 
The States has the ability for members to bring a private proposition to rescind a Ministerial decision, but this is rare. Guy De Faye's attempt to allow a private developer to dig up private gardens to provide access to mains drains was the last such, and it was slapped down very quickly, But on the whole, decisions are not noticed, not because they are uncontroversial, but because their reach is more global; in the case of Deputy de Faye, it was only the sharp eye of Senator Ben Shenton which prevented it being carried out.
 
Now the Chief Minister has a proposal which would permit the Chief Minister to present the Council of Ministers as a "slate", and on a third rejection by the Assembly, his final "slate" would automatically be approved unless a vote of no confidence was made in the Chief Minister himself; as he would have only just been elected, this is unlikely in the extreme.
 
So the Assembly's ability to decide who is Minister is severely curtailed. I would be in favour of the Chief Minister putting forward candidates individually for election, rather than the Assembly being able to nominate them, but this presents an "all or nothing" scenario, with a force through on the third undertaking. That reminds me of the Parliament Bill which can force legislation approved by the Commons through the Lords, but here it seems to operate in reverse; by giving the Chief Minister this power, it is akin to the Lords being able to force legislation through the Commons.
 
The Chief Minister will also have the power to "hire and fire" or even reshuffle recalcitrant ministers, and alter the remit of Ministries. This is a good deal of power and patronage, and with a newly introduced "collective responsibility", which ensures that the Council of Ministers brooks very little dissent.
 
While it has been the case that Ministers have at times behaved with scant consideration of any opinions or discussion with the Council of Ministers, it is questionable whether strengthening control at the centre is the best way. This opens the way  not to government by consensus, but government by control, where the Minister who steps out of line can be forced into adopting policies foist upon him by a majority of the Council of Ministers.
 
If it had to be unanimous, that would provide better protection, and I could see the point in that. But as it is, it means that power blocks within the Council of Ministers - and this was identified back in Frank Walker's time by Ben Shenton, hardly someone on the left - can push their agenda through. History has demonstrated that given the opportunity, an "inner ring" invariably develops, and to give this more power under "collective responsibility" is a mistake.
 
But now there is a proposal which also gives monetary incentives to appointments. It has been suggested by Senator Philip Ozouf that Ministers should receive more monetary reward for their services than backbenchers. He states: "The current level of remuneration cannot attract individuals to stand for the States and fulfil different roles with different time commitments."
 
Coupled with a power to "hire, fire and reshuffle", this would provide the Chief Minister with monetary incentive as well to keep Ministers in line. In a large assembly like the UK, where most members are backbenchers, that is not so significant. In a small jurisdiction like Jersey, it wholly changes the structure of the States, and upsets how it works.
 
A Minister may work hard - or delegate lots to his or her Chief Officers, and scarcely put in appearances. And yes, I won't but I could name some of the latter, in previous assemblies and the current one. Those in the States probably know who they are anyway. Some Ministers and Assistant Ministers are very diligent; others far less so.
 
And for research, when backbenchers put together a proposition, they may spend hours or even days researching, where the Minister delegates to their officials for information for a reply.
 
Ministers have the support of vast army of civil servants and at CEO to do the donkey work - and that's certainly what some of them do or have done in the past. A former Minister once said that that the good thing about being a Minister was that he had to do very little actual work. Most of his work entailed PR, attending meetings with other Ministers and 'briefings'.
 
Now differential salaries would mean a marked change in the balance of power. The ability to "buy" and give patronage is a tremendous stick to keep people in line, and coupled with the proposed hire / fire/ reshuffle powers proposed by the Chief Minister, will concentrate power massively in the centre.
 
I would hope that the backbenchers generally would see this and vote against both propositions. If not, they would effectively put themselves out of government albeit still being part of it - on paper. Their influence would be almost demolished.
 
And of course, let us not forget the allure of power - and financial reward. There will also be an incentive to support the executive by some backbenchers in the hope they too would be elevated to the ranks of the elite at some point - and gain a big increase in salary to go with it!
 
"The reality is that the current single-level salary is not commensurate with levels of remuneration for similar senior posts available in the private or not-for-profit sectors" says Philip Ozouf.
 
When I read that, I think of the "Yes Prime Minister" episode "A Real Partnership":
 
Hacker: Where's the one-page summary for the Cabinet?
Sir Humphrey: The Janet and John bit? Here it is. It's more or less the same as last time. Comparable jobs in industry.
Hacker: On whose salary are the comparisons based?
Sir Humphrey: The directors of BP and IBM, naturally.
Hacker: You don't think that might be challenged as untypical and above average?
Sir Humphrey: No. Of course, we don't mention them by name. Just ''typical industrial firms''.
 
Or indeed, in Philip Ozouf's phrase "similar senior posts available in the private sector"!
 
The States may decide that some States members are "worth more", but I think that to a disillusioned general public, seeing States members pay rise in a recession, and allowances slipped by, the phrases "gravy train" and "snouts in the trough" will be well used come the next election if the States pass this proposition.

1 comment:

roger benest said...

From Roger the Boff.

Admirable, very well researched.

Roger