Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Final Electoral Commission Hearing - Media complaints; Constables and faith

The final public hearing of the Electoral Commission was held yesterday. It was a remarkably relaxed affair, probably because the Chairman was absent. Not that it was an uncontentious morning – could it be otherwise as everyone seems to have their own preferred structure for the States Assembly, however Byzantine.

Arriving late, I missed the 9am contribution of a local advocate. One to watch I was told for a future political career. Of lateness more later.

The first contention was some fierce criticism by the Vice Chairman Colin Storm of a recent JEP report and an editorial intimating that the Commission had already reached some provisional conclusions, amongst which was keeping the Constables. Whether the JEP did this “maliciously or negligently” was unknown, but it imputed their collective and his personal honesty, he said. These comments as to the integrity of the Commission were triggered when Deputy Mike Higgins gave evidence in which he commenced by recording his scepticism, calling the enquiry “a farce” given the stated public position of certain States Members on the panel.

Deputy Higgins’s own credibility dropped somewhat when Colin Storm had to lend him his reading glasses before he could read his submission. He was reading aloud because none of the members had had time to consider it. The Greffier informed us this was because he had only submitted it at 9.27am that very morning. Nevertheless, his comments were a tour de horizon of current failings, kitchen cabinets and cronyism in the Council of Ministers.

What did emerge was that the head of the Constables’ Committee has a place as observer on all Council of Minister’s meetings and is a regular attendee. This permanent representation rather tarnishes the argument that Constables are essentially benign and apolitical patriarchs concerned only with their parishes.

Next on was Senator Lyndon Farnham who put the case for retaining the Senators as a category of States Member. He was followed by Sylvia Lagadu, a former Senatorial candidate in 2011, whose concerns seemed to be mainly with the Parish of St Helier and its parking policies.

No rubber stamp

The contention returned when Daniel Wimberly, appearing before the Commission for a second occasion, wanted to submit an additional out of time statement to rebut the work of academic Mr Lewis Baston on constituency sizes that formed part of Advocate Mark Renouf’s submission. The Vice Chairman indicated that all evidence would be weighed equally in due course and that none had precedence. This led to repetition of his criticism made earlier about the presumptious JEP editorial with its “malicious or misguided” comments. The Editor should be asked to retract his comments suggested Daniel Wimberly. Mr Storm was uncertain as it was a decision for the Chairman. In any event a sensational comment may have appeared on the front page but an apology only ever got a few column inches on page 7. The matter was left in abeyance.

The formed Deputy of St Mary seemed to be unaware of some important research conducted by the Commission and published on its website. This thorough research by Dr Alan Renwick of Reading University has some important observations for an objective analysis of the current set up including disparities in size of constituencies that breach the Vienna Commission Code, a set of standards for new democracies. 

Daniel Wimberly pointed out the conundrum in an IPSOS Mori poll conducted in 2006 to which 92% had responded that they were “interested in island issues”, yet when asked why then they did not vote cited poor quality candidates and the feeling that their vote would not make any difference. Panel member Deputy James Baker, having arrived two hour late and perhaps wishing to appear conversant with the issues, suggested a counter argument for voters not voting; it was because they were content.  Clearly the Deputy had not done much canvassing around No.1 district last year, as he would have discovered anything but complete contentment.

“The role of a States Member is to challenge, question and propose alternatives.”

Having served 18 years as a Deputy, Bob Hill recalled how he had welcomed the Clothier Report and was expectant of changes, only to be disillusioned by his colleagues self interest. He witnessed the implementation of ministerial government without the concomitant democratic changes to the Assembly and constituencies.

During his time in the States, which embraced the period of the Committee system, he could not recall any Constable having put forward a private proposition. He supported the idea of one category of States Member. The public had the right to expect their representatives to pay full attention to States business.

“Constablism”and revelation

Constable Steve Pallett told us of his conversion to belief in Constables when he joined the Honorary Police. He admitted he had been a sinner in the past. As a former Chairman of the Jersey Democratic Alliance, he confessed that his “views were tainted, because I was working within a political group”. As for the “vocal, vociferous minority” currently calling for removal of Constables from the States, they were wrong and out of touch with public opinion.

Deputy James Baker sought to encourage the Constable’s continued repentance with a number of leading questions. We learnt that the parish system was open to anyone in any walk of life and that it was not conservative. Were Constables to no longer sit in the States and be paid to do so, then the institution would become elitist and the preserve of only those with sufficient private income to stand. Not sitting in the States would demean the stature of anyone taking up the office in the future. However, Constables should not become Ministers as this would distract them from their Parish duties, as was the public perception of his predecessor in St Brelade.

I was not entirely convinced by Constable Pallett’s vision of this democratic and participatory institution, even if I admit it is not as High Church as it was in the nineteenth century. Certainly it contrasted with earlier witnesses lamenting the absence of contested elections for Constable (8 out of 12 in 2011) and the low numbers attending parish meetings.

This meeting in the Town Hall completed the series of public hearings as part of initial consultation. We await the provisional recommendations of the Commission which will be the subject of a further round of consultation this autumn. In the meantime expect plenty of media coverage of Constables and reasons for their retention – concrete and mystical.

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