Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Slow Road to Reform

There can be little doubt that the last referendum was an abject failure which set back public confidence in the integrity of the States considerably. Not only was there a low turnout, the final results were decried by supporters of Options A and C in the States, who promptly voted against it.

It was a “fast track” referendum, designed to come up with a solution during the lifetime of the last States, and in time for the next election. The independent review panel was thrown out of the window by the States, and Senator Bailhache, as Chairman, took over, on the grounds that it would be far easier for someone who knew the Jersey situation to come up with proposals rather than a rank outsider.

The fact that the States had already spent the better part of a decade trying out and rejecting various options seems to have passed them by. Peter Troy, in his manifesto, alludes to one brought about by Roy Le Hérissier, and rejected by the States.

This time, we were told, would be different. Proposals would be made. A Referendum would take place. The people would decide.

The outcome of the fast track was a car crash round the last bend in the road. Not only were the public presented with an incoherent set of options, which never gave clear choices - or indeed any choices about the Senators, the turnout was low, and to crown the entire disaster, the States rejected the option with the most votes. Only two cheers for democracy, as E.M. Forster might have said.

This time round, PPC tried to bring forward a version based on Clothier, which had a multipart, but single answer question, which was flawed in the ambiguous way it was worded - as the Constables committee pointed out:

“The way in which the question is structured means that if the overall result is a “No” vote, then there will be no obvious way of determining why – in other words, which part or parts of the question did not find favour with the public. Therefore there will be only limited information to assist in the formulation of further reform proposals."

“The proposed referendum question does ask for a Yes/No answer. But the proposal outlined on the ballot paper refers to 3 specific issues: namely type of member, number of members and distribution of seats. Whilst PPC have sought the views of focus groups to refine the question proposed, it is clear that a voter’s answer will be affected by the importance of one or more issues rather than the whole. For example, those wishing to see a reduction to 42 or 44 members, as proposed by Clothier, may vote “No”, even though other aspects of the proposal are acceptable.

In the end that was thrown out, and the proposition agreed by the States was as follows:

“Agreed that a referendum under the Referendum (Jersey) Law 2002 should be held on the day of the 2014 elections with a single Yes/No question to ask voters whether they agreed that the Constables should remain as members of States Assembly as an automatic right, and requested the Privileges and Procedures Committee to bring forward for approval the necessary Referendum Act to enable the referendum to take place.”

This was a straightforward question which would initially lay one perennially controversial question to rest, and to give the States Assembly a clear instruction on one aspect of the composition of the States Assembly, going forward.

It is important to note that the Constable’s committee did not see this as a question of maintaining the status quo, but as the start of series of questions which would enable the public to shape the outline of what a reformed States Assembly could look like.

As the Constables Committee pointed out:

“An answer to this question, one way or another, would at least provide a basis on which to progress with reform of the composition and election of the States Assembly. “

Note the careful wording – “to progress with reform”. The whole purpose of the yes/ no question was to answer that question in an unambiguous manner, and get on to the next question.

Some candidates have been trying to introduce new dimensions to this question, probably to avoid having to commit to a straightforward “yes” or “no” position. This happened at St Mary when some candidates said ““The question is badly worded... what does this mean? Will they be able to speak? Will they be able to vote? The question doesn’t explain this.”

This is clearly nonsense. The Referendum Question is simply about whether the Constables remain members as an automatic right. That means that their role would be the same in the Parish and in the States. There is no ambiguity in the word “remain” which means “carry on as before”.

While a Yes vote would be a vote for the status quo, it is also settling in a definite way the question that was not asked directly in the last Referendum. It is then time for the next steps to be taken on the road to reform.

As the Constables Committee said:

“If the States Assembly is intent on seeking the Public’s view by means of referenda on the specific composition of the States Assembly, then in reality a Yes/No vote is required on other key aspects. This includes whether the electorate wish to retain the role of Senator as an all-Island election (even though there is no incentive to stand for such a position when the terms of election are exactly the same as those of a Deputy); support ‘super-constituencies’ as an alternative to an all-Island mandate (81% of those voting in the 2013 referendum were supportive) and, indeed, whether the role of Deputy should continue to be linked to a Parish or district boundary. “

As Philip Rondel pointed out:

“A yes or no answer on any one of these questions is not dependent on a yes or no answer on any combination of the other three.”

The problem with the last referendum was that these were all intertwined and incapable of being separated. This led to confusion, both in the debate before, and in the analysis of the result after.

This time round, all the candidates supporting a “yes” vote have said they will abide with the result, whatever it is. There will, in the words of Jeff Hathaway, “be no more fudges”. The result must be treated as binding by both “Yes” and “No” campaigners. The States cannot afford to betray the public confidence once more.

This is not just about "Yes" or "No", it is about trusting the public. Otherwise, mere lip service is paid to democracy, and the public will become justifiably more apathetic.The States must, as Chesterton put it, "trust to a consensus of common human voices". There must be no betrayal.

The fast track to reform the States has failed. Now is the time for a slower but surer path to reform. It make take longer, but at least it will get there. Or, as the maxim goes, “more haste, less speed”.

Everyone mocked the tortoise in Aesop’s fable of the race between the tortoise and the hare, but at the end of the day, it was the tortoise which won the race.

1 comment:

James said...

The result must be treated as binding by both “Yes” and “No” campaigners.

I have little time for Guy de Faye, but on this he is spot-on right: any state that expects to make a binding decision on the basis of a 16% turnout is insane.