Democracy suffered a sad blow following today’s vote in the States to reject Deputy Roy Le Herissier’s amendments that would have kept the Electoral Commission made up only of independents. Tomorrow will see the election of Senator Bailhache to chair the Commission together with two other States Members. This amounts to a virtual political coup by the forces of conservatism and tradition, to prevent the long overdue democratisation of Jersey’s political system.
The model of democratic government outlined in the Clothier (2000) and Carswell (2010) Reports were simply unpalatable to traditionalists, attached as they are to a system in which they see no faults and serves them well. Yet these reports set out clearly what democratic counterweights should be to an Executive that has centralised power in the hands of the Council of Ministers.
We learnt there has been 65 separate States debates on reforms, all of them inconclusive save the reduction of two Senators and a single general election day. Vested interests in various guises have delayed matters for over a decade.
"Fresh Winds" or just old F***s
Following the election of number of new Right-wing members in October 2011, including Senator Bailhache himself, there has been a concerted policy of reasserting control over the legislature. It was perceived previously as a disharmonious site of contestation between representatives of the elites and excluded subordinate social groups. The new vision is of an Executive untroubled by a "loyal" and deferential Scrutiny function manned by these new, but grossly inexperienced, members. Thoroughout the debate, this new intake was constantly referred to as the "Fresh Winds". They form part of the fight back by traditional conservative elite groups. The reactionary version of Reform that is about to be served up by the Electoral Commission is orchestrated by this movement. Senator Bailhache has already written the final report. It is the one he outlined on the Senatorial husting - retention of the Constables and 30 others, making the magic number 42 States Members. Whether he can pursuade the unwanted 9 members to volunteer for the gallows, assuming patriotic duty will not trump vested interest, remains to be seen. High voter abstention at elections will continue to be ignored.
“Vigourous open and public debate ... not corridor conspiracy”
Deputy Le Herissier is to be commended for his valiant attempt to give the Electoral Commission the semblance of an objective review, as are those other 22 States Members who supported him. His closing speech was a commendable summation of the “urban myths” that have been cultivated by the forces of conservatism.
The first myth is that Senator Bailhache is the messiah, the Homme Providentiel who will solve the political problems that beset the island and by force of will alone will cut through vested interests. Just like Vernon Tomes, who entered the States on a populist wave, threatening to refom the role of Bailiff and ended up in the hinterlands of Public Services composting sites, Senator Bailhache will lead his battalions into the sands and be consumed by those same deserts.
The second myth is that Clothier and Carswell were composed of outsiders. This is simply wrong. Both had a heavyweight representation of Jersey Advocates, local businessmen and prominent community figures. Much of the argument from traditionalists during the debate was that outsiders could not possibly have anything to contribute. The debate had an evident odour of xenophobia combined with narrow minded insular prejudice. Ironically, even the "Englishman" and Chief Minister Gorst made comments along those lines.
Much was made of the theme that the Public are not interested in constitutional reforms, consumed as they are by economic worries. Its true, but this should not be the opportunity for conservatives to trash Reform and dig in for another decade or more. Meanwhile the public remains much abused by its government.
Deputy Le Herissier referred to a report from the Jersey Express Newspaper in 1892 when the States had been voting on the issue of additional Deputy representation for St Helier, during which one Jurat had lamented that “The spirit of the Jersey People” was “apathy”. The subsequent elections of 1895 saw no contested seats save in the parish of Trinity.
The public were not completely docile. It should be noted that there has been “resistance” in St Clement and St Helier, where Parish Assemblies voted in favour of Deputy Le Herissier’s amendments to keep the Electoral Commission independent. There was also a small demonstration outside the States building as members left around lunchtime. The media noted the dissent and carried the message in their reports of the day. The so called "Progressives" inside the States did not provide much public leadership and it remained to civil society activists to lead the way. Note that for the future.
On a local note, District 1 St Helier residents may wish to ponder why they put Deputy James Baker top of the poll. Not unexpectedly he voted like a Turkey but has yet to cluck in the Chamber. Incidentally he was one of about four who voted against a register of States Members' interest being published on line. So much for openess and transparency.