Two things are becoming clear from the Electoral Commission hearings; firstly the lay panel members are far from being placemen and secondly the public remain ill informed about the composition of the States Assembly and electoral system.
Town Hall hearings
The third public hearing occurred yesterday in the Town Hall at 10am, when four witnesses gave evidence. There was a separate hearing for one female witness at 5pm. The Commission is to be praised for accommodating someone whose only availability was after work.
I was aware of the hearings being held this Monday but could not find the start time on the Commission website. It took an email and a very rapid reply from the Greffier of the States to advise it was about to begin at 10am. Realising I had two minutes to get to the Town Hall, I pulled on my shoes and shot off on the bicycle. When I checked later in the day a notice with timings had indeed appeared under the NEWS section.
A full house - Placemen and Democrats.
Commission member Dr. Jonathan Renouf made his first appearance, making it the first occasion all members had been present at a hearing. He proved his worth along with Professor Ed Sallis and Colin Storm, gently teasing out aspects of the “democratic deficit” in the current structure.
Given the concerns about independence for the Commission from the outset, in having States Members on board, it is reassuring to note that the lay members are far from being placemen. One hopes that during private session and in drafting the final report, their evident concerns about democratic issues are reflected.
Deficiencies in the electoral system
The electoral system is not part of the terms of reference of the Commission, however witnesses have raised issues in their written submissions and orally. There has been discussion of the single transferable vote and other mechanisms to indicate voter preference, since the first past the post system and equal weighting for every vote cast, creates distortions. The public is clearly flagging up issues of equality and fairness in all aspects of the process as well as structure.
The absence of the electoral and voting system from the final terms of reference derives, one suspects, from the desire not to address the “democratic deficit” and issue of voter abstention. A 60% voter abstention makes Jersey one of the highest amongst democratic countries. The low 40% turnout at elections raises serious questions of legitimacy for those elected. That is perhaps a little too embarrassing and hence the concentration on the structure of the Assembly.
To remind readers, the terms of reference are restricted to:
- Classes of States member;
- Constituencies and mandates;
- Number of States members;
- Terms of office;
- and all other issues arising in the course of the work of the Commission which are relevant to the needs stated above.
Town and Country divide – new wine in old bottles
The historical divide between Town and Country is throwing up disparities and highlighting inequalities. The contrast is ever between the Parish of St Mary with a population of 1752, a Constable and a Deputy, while St Helier has 10 Deputies, a Constable and 33,532 residents. To achieve the same level of representation St Helier would require 38 representatives in the States! No one is suggesting this, but it illustrates the problem starkly.
In the past the dominance of the Country Parishes represented the influence of landed property and the farming interest, over the interests of commerce in the Town. The history of that epic economic and political struggle is well recorded in Dr John Kelleher’s book “The Triumph of the Country”.
Now that farmers have been replaced with bankers, lawyers, accountants and the well healed, that divide has taken a new form. New wine has been poured into old bottles. The Country is where the wealthy live, while in the Town of St Helier and the “urban” parishes, live the poor and middle classes. The disparities in the electoral system have never been addressed precisely because it achieves the dominance of the interests of the wealthy. It is a form of gerrymandering. Those in St Helier and the urban areas are denied equal representation in government.
A dearth of information
Speaking to one witness yesterday highlighted the absence of information provided by the Electoral Commission which the public can use to inform themselves and make a credible submission. There is a lot of frustration with the existing system in its evident failure to deliver but little clear analysis of the core issues and how it has come about. There is a manifest desire to make improvements, however some of the schemes are Byzantine and unworkable, loosing sight of democratic principles. Those that contribute do so with good intentions but are handicapped by not being well informed. The Commission has not provided any tools of analysis and it is highly unlikely the final report will be an extensive discourse of political science.
I have mentioned in earlier posts of the romaticised views expressed about Constables and the Parish. Some present an idyllic harmonious community, divested of issues such as the provision of welfare and shelter for the poor.
The Commission has been particularly criticised for not carrying out research into the contribution of Constables in the Assembly; their engagement in Scrutiny, questions to Ministers and participation in debates. This has been part of an ORGANISED campaign and its success is evident by the number of contributors making submissions using the template request. The campaign has been conducted via the internet, in part on Facebook and a number of Jersey blogs. Senator Bailhache, the Chairman, alluded to the requests which the Commission had decided to ignore.
Were the public better informed they might be less romantic about Constables. Just a couple of examples could suffice, such as the fact that in eight of the twelve parishes there was no contested election for Constable in 2011, whilst the one that occurred in St Ouen was the first in 108 years.
The times they are a’changin – NOT in the Country Parishes at least.