Shotgun reform is not the way to do a proper clean-up

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In political circles, it’s a crowd pleaser, given the excesses brought to attention in the UK over nest-feathering at tax-payers’ expense. But there are wise counsels urging that cleansing of the Augean Stables is not best performed with the speed of some ‘Mr Whizz’ household cleanser TV commercial – which rarely work anyway.

We’ve heard from the highest level that the behaviour of the perpetrators is ‘inexcusable’, ‘unacceptable’, ‘we’ve got to clean things up’, but, we’ve also witnessed a huge institutional reluctance to pursue the fraudsters.

While they compound their felonies by brazenly contriving to extract the last shekel, they’re gently flushed from the system through gold-lined soil pipes. Change is cathartic, but it isn’t necessarily incisive, sustainable or positive. Simply removing one set of actors doesn’t automatically improve the play.

The clamour for a general election would certainly lead to further casualties among the current roll call of honourable members. Indeed, those, not directly mired by the expenses scandal are bruised and nervous when contemplating the chilly life that could befall them.

But a precipitately executed putsch could send the sheep to the same slaughter house as the goats before Solomon had a chance to pronounce on the guilty, allowing much of the unseemly, corrupt and down-right dishonest behaviour to be left uninvestigated in the hurly-burly of change.

Wherever real reform is needed, ‘knee-jerk’ is the least appropriate strategy. Rushed through plans to introduce a ‘code of conduct’ for MPs, or proposals to open up party candidate lists to people with no previous political experience, may have the benefit of planting seductive headlines in the media, but raise the inevitable question: ‘Have the Party leaders really thought them through?’ Going for broke might provide the universally desired short-term break-through, but risks opening the door to meddlers, megalomaniacs and long-in-the-tooth ‘celeb’ publicity seekers.

But you don’t have to wait till an institution becomes so riddled with corruption that its implosion forces precipitate reform. There’s a huge benefit in diagnosing the illness before it becomes terminal – so long as you don’t put off surgery till it’s too late.

We’ve been toying with reform of our own political structures for longer than we’d be prepared to admit. The Clothier Report has been so extensively picked over that there are few recognisable cherries left, while difficult decisions have been deferred rather than executed – I don’t mean that literally, of course.

First the Constables were for the chop, now the axe is hanging over the Senators. Deputies would now appear to be the flavour of the month. I have always felt there should be a progression from Deputy to Senator. The transition from local to Island-wide appeared to offer a worthwhile apprenticeship.

Furthermore, there’s an appealing logic that Ministers, who after all have pan-Island responsibilities and rely on a mature, but nimble, fleetness of foot to be efficient, successful and independent, should only aspire to such a position after at least being tested in the Senatorial role.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t always worked that way. There have also been too many examples of first-timers going straight into positions of influence with disastrous consequences for the body politic. With the minimum of political nous, they’ve simply continued to run their fiefdom as if it were an adjunct of their previous – sometimes concurrent, commercial enterprises, oblivious that they have taken on the privileged role of servant of the public’s interests above their own.

Size matters; though in terms of efficiency, it can be something of a distraction. A good Assembly is the sum of good individuals.

However, in both consensus and adversarial assemblies, there are those who affirm that there’s strength in numbers – the more members needing to be convinced of the merits of legislation before it can be passed, the better. Opponents argue that an unwieldy chamber causes dilution and appeasement. Given the ratio of voters to elected members – I’m talking about those who actually bother to cast their ballot, not the bald numbers on the electoral roll – a reduction in under-represented districts is manifestly appealing. If nothing it would ease the dire accommodation problem in the House of Commons.

At least our States Chamber has sufficient seats for all members, but as with our larger mainland neighbour, we do have a stark problem with representation. So the radical proposal to redraw our local constituency map provides an egalitarian 21st century attempt to break the uneven grip of parish mafias.

But be wary of simply filling the new seats with new Deputies. Elevate a parish Deputy to junior – or even full – Minister and you wave goodbye to their close attention to parochial affairs. That’s not a criticism; it’s the inevitability of day following night.

As a consequence, much greater parochial focus will fall on the shoulders of the Constables, while the proposed new boundaries would certainly provide an interesting test for regional responsibility sharing. All of which should naturally preclude Constables from the lure of Ministerial duties at all costs.

Then there’s the small matter of engaging the community with the process. The acid test of any legislature has to be whether collectively or individually its members can stand the scrutiny of their local electorate. Across the water in the mother of Parliaments, we’ve seen representatives ignore that at their peril. Expect a further salvo from the reform shotgun in the aftermath of tomorrow’s EU and Local Council elections. How fortunate for us, then, that for the moment, we are only faced with adjusting the political framework and not the morality of its fabric.

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