Friday, 5 September 2014

Philip Ozouf’s Speech

Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong—but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong! Heaven save us from poltroons who fear to make a choice. Let us stand up and be counted." (The Right Honorable John Joseph Bonforte in "Double Star", Robert Heinlein)

I attended Senator Philip Ozouf's speech at the Pomme D'Or, and while I was not wholly convinced by everything he said, I did find myself in agreement with him on one point. He said that he had over 15 years made many decisions, and some of them were wrong, but decisions had to be made.

There is a kind of politician who never makes decisions, and is always content to be pristine and pure on the back benches. But decisions have to be made, and someone has to make them. And every decision you make will get the support of some people, and the criticism of others.

That is something the Liberal party has found out, and it has caused grief within the party. As long as the Liberals were safely outside Government, they could present themselves and their policies any way they chose, because there was not the slightest chance anyone would have to decide on them. Once they were thrust into a coalition, they suddenly found it harder, as their decisions alienated some supporters who would have preferred high ideals on the sidelines than practical policies to implement.

Don Filleul told me that politicians had to be able to make tough decisions and be unpopular sometimes, if that was the right thing to do. He should certainly have known. His decision as President of Public Services to back Queen's Valley as a reservoir got him knocked out as Senator, although he was able to sneak back in as a Deputy. But where would we be now with regard to the water supply if he had not forced it through against considerable public opposition?

This, I should say at this point, is not an endorsement of Senator Ozouf's policies, of which more later. But it is an endorsement of the fact that politicians like him have to make decisions, sometimes difficult ones, and politicians who never have to make a serious decision may keep their integrity, but do we want that? It is all very well to harangue from outside, and to claim they never get the change to show how wonderful their decisions would be, but that's pure supposition. In reality, we might be saying, like Oliver Hardy, "that's another fine mess you've got me into".

Incidentally, speaking of decisions, Senator Ozouf has decided to stand again for election as Senator. He came out with that before it became a question from the floor!

There were actually a few swipes at my blog in Senator Ozouf's talk. He mentioned that the proposed reform of the rates was not a poll tax, several times. Some people may have wondered why! My blog posting on the subject was called "Philip Ozouf's Twist on the Poll Tax". In it, I said that while the poll tax was a massive shake-up which shifted the burden of what was rates to the ordinary person, the consultation, while not as radical, did disadvantage the occupier by removing owner / occupier proportions of rates to pay. So the twist is not that it is a poll tax, but that it is a move in that kind of direction. The occupier would pay the whole rates, including that currently levied on the owner.

The talk began with an analogy about farmers and weather forecasting, and how the distant forecast can be quite different as the present approaches, and the forecasts get more accurate, and farmers can change their timetables for planting, fertiliser, irrigation accordingly. He didn't mention when storms come and take everyone by surprise, and mess up the entire crop!

Economic systems are likewise chaotic systems, and predictions are difficult. As Senator Ozouf says, the "contagion" of the economic downturn was outside our control, and not something we could completely isolate ourselves from. Nevertheless, Jersey does seem to be struggling with regard to employment when compared to England, where the slow economic upturn has seen a reduction in unemployment. Is this because Jersey is a small island, or are other factors involved, and is Jersey making all the right decisions for a return to economic growth? These are difficult questions, and the matter was not raised in his speech.

I heard Senator Ozouf on BBC Radio Jersey, interviewed about his speech, talking rather patronisingly about "armchair critics" who think they know it all. He challenged them to demonstrate their economic prowess, which he suggested for most politicians, himself included, was not there; they were not trained economists. He said he took advice from the Fiscal Policy Panel, and that was diligently followed.

I suspect he didn't realise that he was actually talking himself out of a job. If the Minister is reliant upon the recommendations of the Fiscal Policy Panel and his Civil Servants, then anyone can be Minister. It requires perhaps a certain intellectual sharpness, but not more. I have heard people say "If he was not Treasury Minister, who on earth could do the job?", but as it now appears, quite a wide range of candidates might, as long as they have the same Departmental support and the Fiscal Policy Panel to advise them.

Perhaps it might be thought that promoting Jersey overseas would rule out some candidates, but it must be remembered that when Philip Ozouf was Minister at Economic Development, and Terry le Sueur was Treasury Minister, it was Philip who was jaunting across the globe, not Terry. Whatever the beneficial effects of these trips, and they certainly are of some benefit, he has actually usurped the functions of his former Ministerial position, and there is no reason why a future Treasury Minister should not let foreign finance affairs revert back.

In fact, on reflection, for someone relatively young, his enthusiasm, command of other languages, and experience as Treasury Minister would make him ideally suited for the role of External Relations Minister, much more so than the current incumbent, who always seems rather posh and stodgy and faintly old fashioned.

A certain amount was talking about investment in infrastructure – for example, a new hospital and a new police station. He also mentioned the Waste Water strategy, with the new sewage works, and added that "sewage treatment was free, for the moment". It is perhaps worth flagging up that "for the moment"!

There were a few graphs, and one bar chart was rather odd in that under expenditure, it had pensions (or pension liability) and that remained static over the years in the graph. Perhaps the quickness of PowerPoint deceives the eye, but I would have thought that with an aging population, that pension bar would increase over time. (I must re-read Darrell Huff's "How to Lie with Statistics" about the "gee-wizz graph").

On questions, he favoured differential pay to ensure that States members could come from areas of commercial middle management without facing loss of income. He suggested that those who were not heads of Scrutiny, and who didn't want Ministerial office, could actually treat the States more as a part-time job. They would vote and be present, but would not have the same burdens of office.

That's a fine idea, but assumes those entering the States from middle management get elected from within the States as Ministers, and they cannot know that in advance. It assumes that if instead they become backbenchers on lower pay, they have another job, and treat the States membership as part-time. I'm not sure that such a backbencher would necessarily fulfil their responsibility to the electorate by so doing.

There was a certain amount of criticism about States members speaking too long, and wasting lots of time. He didn't actually mention the rejected proposal for limits to speakers times, but it was implicit. I have a degree of sympathy with that. There is a terrible lot of "talking shop" in States debates, but on the other hand, as Karl Popper noted, this is the price we pay for democracy - the resolution of disputes with words rather than direct action. The best way to limit the time would be to time long winded speakers and name and shame them!

"Delay is the worst thing we do in Jersey" was a wonderful soundbite, and it is true that delay can see opportunities missed. On the other hand, fools rush in with £200,000 for fantasy films! What is needed is a degree of balance. Some delay and scrutiny to ensure that decisions are not made like marriage, in haste, repenting in leisure.

He was extremely vague on immigration, suggesting just that it needed to be "controlled" and the "right immigrant" was what was needed, some of whom appeared to be "high net worth individuals" (what used to be called rich English residents), and the laws have been changed to enable them to keep more of their cash in Jersey trusts and banks rather than Guernsey ones without suffering financial penalties. The island does benefit from this, but the ethics of it are problematic: it is literally, "one law for the rich, one law for the rest of us". I would not say it does not help the economy, and is much needed, but we should not paper over the ethical issues raised either.

But he was right on one thing: the ability of businesses to take on more staff as long as they are "entitled" status without running the gamut of red tape. That has to be an improvement, and it means that there is an added incentive for employing local people.

My own question was on the prediction by Social Security Minister, Francis Le Gresley, that the medical fund (for GP's visits) would run out in 10 years. I asked how the budget addressed that issue.

His reply was that free prescription charges were primarily responsible for eating into the fund, and asked if it was fair that those who could afford it, got them free. The suggestion was that prescription charges could return. I have no problem with that as long as there are exemptions for the poor, young children and pensioners, all of whom should continue with free prescriptions. He then went on to speak about a whole shakeup of health care, and how the problems with the medical fund would be addressed in the larger picture.

None of that, apart from prescription charges, actually addresses the question. The two traditional means of getting more funding are increasing the percentage paid as social security, or raising the ceiling beyond which wages are disregarded for contributions. But Senator Ozouf shied away from anything too concrete like that.

In summary, a wide ranging talk, lively, interesting, with good delivery. Unlike Rob Duhamel, he is a good orator. And there were some good nuggets, although a good deal of what was said was actually bereft of concrete data; as a colleague said, "he is a smooth talker". Whether he can talk his way into the hearts and minds of the electorate will be another matter.

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