It was a varied selection of fair-minded conservatives, the ill-informed, the impractical, and utopians that appeared at this first of a series of oral hearings held by the Electoral Commission. Nine people were interviewed on Thursday 21st June in the committee room of the Town Hall for around forty minutes each. Some even spoke of democracy as their starting point for States reform.
One hopes that the next set of interviews will include some of those who have submitted the template response requesting the Commission to undertake research into what the Constables actually do in the States in terms of work and responsibilities. Certainly those that feel capable should offer themselves as witnesses to explain.
As I listened, I sought to identify the social type that the speaker represented in Jersey society – the genteel resident of St Helier, the Finance wizz-kid; the Jersey Boy; the English resident. Opinion predictably reflected social and economic status.
Will there be sadness when the Constables leave the States?
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of witnesses that argued Constables should no longer sit in the States, but opinion remained strongly divided. There were of course die hard supporters including an Honorary Policeman that even turned up wearing a florescent yellow Police jacket as if to emphasise devotion.
Pierre Horsfall, a former Senator, when cross examined and cornered, confessed that he was trying to devise an intellectual argument to keep the Constables in the States. He failed. In addition he tried to make the case for the retention of the ante bellum structure as it was in the glory days when he was a Senator back in the 1980s. Not all conservatives understand the truth of the paradox that for things to remain the same, things must change.
Some witnesses suggested the Constables might form a second, upper chamber in the States, in a bi-cameral structure. This was challenged by Senator Bailhache himself. Would they be scrutinizing legislation as does the House of Lords, he asked one witness without the slightest hint of irony? For those of us who know the true measure of a Constable, this is a cruel suggestion. Cruel for them in that they would have no desire to perform such a role and cruel to the public to be lumbered with such an impractical structure.
The Finance wizz kid was exasperated by dysfunctional government, poor quality States Members and the absence of political leadership during the worst economic times since 1945. It was time for fundamental change. Views expressed about the Parish and Constables were a paradoxical mix of both romantic and utilitarian. At the social level it was recognised they offered a focus for community (mothers and toddlers groups), but the Parish administration needed to be centralised to replace the bureaucratic duplication of functions that might otherwise be organised on an island-wide basis. Financial savings were of greater priority than the inevitable diminution in status and respect for Constables and Honorary system that would follow.
Idealists, cynics and the ill-informed
It was evident that many of the witnesses had no real idea of how the States actually worked and who did what in government. This led some to devise idealist schemes based on ideological beliefs rather than analysis or experience. Perhaps the “comfort factor”, of prosperous living, meant they lived lives detached from a dysfunctional government that others more closely engaged or better informed knew all too well.
As an example of simple conservative prejudice, one witness emphasized that no one with a criminal conviction should be able to stand for election. Senator Bailhache pointed out this was the case already as anyone convicted of an offence carrying a sentence of three months in prison was disqualified. Even if the witness knew this, it was not sufficient and they wanted it to be even more restrictive than now. Of course driving offences were to be excluded. These were not real sins, just minor peccadilloes it seems.
Is Jersey a Town or a Country?
Senator Bailhache had a revealing comment when Robin Hacquoil, a former Deputy, argued that Jersey was just a town of 100,000, implying it had vain pretensions beyond its capacity. Bailhache could not let that one pass and interjected “We are a country, not a town”. To this folie de grandeur Hacquoil’s drole reply was “We are far from being a country as far as I am concerned.”
Channel TV got to film in the allotted first few minutes of the hearing and bloggers were given the same freedom, once I had asked, though none were there to film. The JEP sent a reporter for part of the hearings and a photographer arrived late wanting to take a snap in the middle of a hearing. He got the opportunity to do so, which was also extended to “citizens’ media”, again after I had asked. I didn’t have a camera and had no intention of taking a photograph, but I thought it as well to enquire – equality of treatment and all that.
Two of the “lay” Commission members Dr. Jonathan Renouf and Professor Ed Sallis were both absent.
Commission member Colin Storm had some perceptive cross examination of witnesses whilst Senator Bailhache adeptly kept others from straying away from central issues and onto the merits of Zebra crossings at First Tower. James Baker, the Deputy representative on the Commission, asked a few questions and no doubt felt he had made a contribution.
All witness interview will be transcribed and made available in addition to their written submissions which are already published on the EC website - http://www.electoralcommission.je/current-submissions/
Those giving evidence were:
Robin Hacquoil – former Deputy of St Peter
Pierre Horsfall – former Senator