The campaign for Real Democracy in Jersey has entered a new phase. The outcome is uncertain and those committed to seeing democracy implemented must recognise the level of commitment this now demands from each. The movement around Reform Jersey will play its part in winning the arguments.
For those unable to attend this morning’s meeting announcing the Interim Report and provisional recommendations of the Electoral Commission, here are the speeches from the Chairman, Senator Sir Philip Bailhache and the Vice Chairman, Colin Storm, followed by a short question and answer session from States Members and a few members of the public.The last question to be asked was mine concerning the Town/Country divide and over representation of the rural areas being perpetuated to the disadvantage of the urban areas were the Constable to be retained.
The media received advanced copy of the Interim Report last Friday, but States Members and the public had to wait until this morning for details from the Chairman of the Electoral Commission. That is why the JEP was able to print before lunchtime with the recommendations as the lead story. Clearly the inner circle of States Members already knew and the Council of Ministers will have been informed. The non magic circle of States Members were a little later in finding out and Deputy Pitman was only able to leak details late last night on his blog.
Retention of the Constables will be the most contentious issue as it remains central to the establishment of a democratic structure for the States Assembly. Opinion is heavily polarised precisely because both sides realise its importance in the exercise of power. Retention of the Constables defeats the potential democratic extension implied by the other reform proposals. The existence of one category of States Member is complementary to a single election day and new larger electoral districts. This is essentially the Guernsey model and one that appears to work well given their high levels of voter turnout in contrast to our abysmal 60% voter abstention.
The rearguard defence of Constables will be fought hard and may well succeed given the deferential nature of the States and media influence over public opinion. The Council of Ministers needs Constables to assure its dominance of the Assembly and unquestioning support of government policy.
Given the levels of political ignorance amongst the public it is unlikely there will be anything other than a modest turnout for any referendum. Copies of the Interim Report are to be delivered to all households this week and I can predict that most of those put through the boxes in the block of flats where I live will end up on the floor unread and unwanted. If there won’t be much public enthusiasm, it is certain that States Members will be even less interested in real democratic reform given their consistent rejection of Clothier for a decade.
As an aside, it should be noted that a significant vote for the retention of Constables in any referendum, will be used to deflect criticism of the proposal that may be met in the Privy Council when any Law comes forward for approval. It will be possible to point to public support for retention as evidence of legitimacy for Constables continuing to sit ex officio in the States, even though it does not fit well with modern democratic standards. It will also get round the international requirement that constituencies should be of equal size. Standards supposed to be essential to emerging democracies like Bosnia and Kosovo need not apply in St Ouen or St Mary for reasons of tradition, in the same way that the Seigneur still plays a role in the Chief Pleas of Sark, even though it is a semi-feudal title that can be bought and sold like any other commodity.
The public consultation meetings next month are all to be held in Parish Halls where we can predict a rallying of Parish loyalists. In St Brelade the venue will be the Parish Hall rather than Communicare, where the parking is so much easier and the building larger. Expect to see certain Constables turning these public meetings into parish events. Will questions be restricted to parishioners only as is so often the case, leading to the exclusion of opinion (dissenting of course) from townies and those living elsewhere that may have decided to turn up out of curiosity?