Option B and the last chance saloon.
Option B in the Referendum was always official government policy but it was never spoken about in that way and commentators failed to enlightened the public of that fact. That it failed in the States, is a triumph to a combination of a vibrant Option A campaign and the vested interest of large numbers of Deputies frightened by the cull of seats to a House with only 42 members. The ruling group have been smarting ever since and have been intent on forcing it through against the will of the States.
Friday’s pre Christmas political pantomime, saw Senator Ozouf and Chief Minister Gorst playing hard cop and soft cop on BBC Radio Jersey. The latest blunt instrument to cajole reluctant States Members is the suggestion that unless States Members vote in January for Senator Ozouf’s gerrymander “Option B with two extra Fairies atop the St Helier Christmas Tree” (P93/2013), the British Government will be sending over a Royal Commission to do the job they won’t do.
Its all obvious huff and puff. The Senator is getting desperate at the prospect of seeking reelection in October 2014 with 8 seats available and the tail-enders likely to be mavericks. Whether he genuinely fears for his own personal reelection is less obvious. Clearly in certain quarters he is despised whilst in others idolised as “a bastard, but our bastard”.
In September, Senator Ozouf pulled P93/2013 from front of the queue in the major debate on electoral reform, knowing that otherwise it would have been rejected immediately. Cleverly, but rather unsubtly, he held it over to the time of the Budget and has postponed it again until January 2014. He is presenting it to Members as the “last chance saloon”. What’s new is that he is threatening Members with a Royal Commission appointed from the UK to deliver reform if they don’t vote through his plans.
The Channel Islands Constitutional Task Force
Of course the appointment of a Royal Commission from the UK would be a humiliating defeat for island autonomy and recognition that the government of the island was completely incapable of managing its internal constitutional affairs. It’s true they can’t, but the Jersey government would never willingly inflict such humiliation on itself. Senator Ozouf knows that the petty Jersey nationalists that sit in the States Assembly would be horrified by the prospect of the Brits arriving with a Constitutional Task Force.
British intervention, together with a lot of lobbying by the Barclay brothers, was needed to bring about democratic reform in Sark and overcome an intransigent rear guard action by old elites. The “Sark model” is the type of acceptable reform to achieve respectability in the eyes of the UK. One can only imagine the cajoling and tutting going on in the corridors of Whitehall whenever a hapless Jersey or Guernsey official turns up. Behind all this lies concern for the longer terms economic and social stability of all the former British colonial possessions. The government of an island where the populace is totally disaffected and show it through a 60% voter abstention, raises questions about stability in the event of a serious crisis.
“The international democratic principle (sic) that… everybody who votes should have the same number of votes”
Senator Ozouf’s arguments lacked any intellectual credibility, but the BBC interviewer was not there to point out obvious flaws, rather to allow the threats to be aired publicly and endorse the plan. All the old chestnuts were there, especially the one about Members ignoring the will of the people by failing to implement Option B following its “triumph” and “popular endorsement” in the April referendum (Yes, all 8% of the island!).
Firstly, were any Royal Commission appointed it would inevitably chuck out Senator Ozouf’s beloved Constables. How could it be otherwise if creating a fair and democratic system? For certain “Option B with tweaks” would be the first scheme in the dustbin of history.
The second confusion was a belief that the fundamental flaw of the present system is that not everyone gets the same number of votes across the island. That’s not the issue. It’s that the constituencies are disproportionate; the legacy of an historic Town and Country divide that marginalized St Helier politically in the past even though it was the economic hub and contained half the population until at least the end of the 20th century. It’s a legacy the political class is unable to address without alienating their traditional power and voter base.
There simply is no international democratic principle that voters should have the same number of votes. This was deliberate confusion and refusal to acknowledge the guidelines of the Venice Commission that constituencies should be of equal sizes and never more than 10% difference.
“Is the woody there?”
It was therefore completely disingenuous when BBC presenter Matthew Price ventured this classic “we are going into next Autumn’s elections with the least representative electoral system we could have chosen”. This is completely untrue. Option B is more disproportionate than the present system.
For certain there cannot be many States Members who will believe any of the arguments in the current government counter attack to regain the initiative for Option B.
However, Friday’s performance will have confused the public even more as the arguments get twisted to suit the ends. Propaganda rules, not informed debate.