A Week in Politics

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The four ultimately wasted hours that ministers spent trying to coax him away from the Big Red Button played out an interesting little drama, as ministers and Scrutiny collided.

The Big Red Button was, of course, Standing Order 72.

It provides a Scrutiny chairman with the right to stop a debate – in this case the debate on the Depositor Compensation Scheme – and pick it up again four States sittings later.

It’s the one real procedural device that Scrutiny possess, it’s the big gun in their arsenal – Her Majesty’s Royal Navy have nuclear submarines, Dirty Harry had a .44 Magnum, the 2001-2 Chelsea squad had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – and Scrutiny have Standing Order 72.

To say that the Big Red Button scares ministers is understating it slightly. They don’t like it. It burns them. They can’t do anything about it – it’s the one thing that they can’t control.

And that’s why they got up, one at a time, to prevail upon Deputy Higgins not to press the Big Red Button. They weren’t alone in this: the assistant ministers got in on the act, as did more than a handful of Members from the centre group, including Senator Alan Breckon and Deputy Judy Martin.

Their argument was that we need the scheme right now. Not after September (the four sitting interval takes in the summer recess), but now – even though the two key players in this, Treasury Minister Philip Ozouf and Economic Development Minister Alan Maclean, spent a fair proportion of last year’s Senatorial hustings meetings rubbishing claims that the scheme was needed at all.

But with the IMF and the Foot Review gearing up to pronounce judgement on Jersey’s finance industry regulation and legislation, we don’t want to be the sole Crown Dependency without depositor protection, they said. The problem was, we’ve been here before.

Ministers have used this argument so many times, there’s a little bit of ‘crying wolf’ about it.

Reappoint the Waterfront Enterprise Board now, or it dies. Support cross-breeding of Jersey cows today, or the industry folds. Build this shiny new incinerator immediately, or we’ll be stockpiling rubbish for years.

To cut to it – ministers have been messing the States around for years. Whether it was former Transport Minister Guy de Faye extending the Connex contract without discussion with the States, or the time ministers found thousands of pounds to compensate misled investors without taking the matter to the House.

And some of them – not all – routinely mess their Scrutiny panels about by withholding information, not answering questions fully, ridiculing their reports or ignoring their findings and recommendations.

So was Deputy Higgins right to pay them back in kind? No, not at all. It was a cheap, shabby thing to do (outdone only by the cheap, shabby and amateur attempt by Deputy Angela Jeune to oust his panel).

I was right there with Deputy Higgins for a while, but something he said himself flipped it for me. He justified the Scrutiny review by saying that it didn’t matter whether the scheme was in, or in Scrutiny – the IMF and Foot Review would be satisfied either way.

So why pull it in then? By his own logic, it didn’t make any difference to anything. It just needled his opposite numbers a little.

Deputy Higgins could have risen above, and taken the moral high ground. Instead he stooped to the kind of tactics that he complained about – and effectively justified them.

There’s nothing wrong with political grandstanding when it’s done well, when it highlights a serious point, or when it makes me laugh. Deputy Montfort Tadier managed all three on Tuesday.

Members rejected his proposal to drop the means test for free television licences for over-75s saying that means-testing was good: that it helped direct benefits to those who really needed them.

Righto, said the Deputy, so you’ll be giving back your non-means-tested bus passes then?

And you’ll all be giving up your non-means-tested free lunches on States days too?

Silence, followed by some uncomfortable shuffling around. Fabulous.

The Deputy says he’ll be back in the not-too-distant future with a proposition to cancel the lunches, and I hope he follows that through.

Partly because it’ll be a laugh, partly because I can’t wait to hear the justification Members come up with for keeping the lunches, and partly because it lets the JEP run ‘free lunch for States Members stories’.

Besides, with businesses suffering from the recession shouldn’t Members back up their fine words and do a little bit of economic stimulating in the cafés, restaurants and bars around St Helier every other Tuesday?

With all this talk about States Members needling each other, it would not be out of place to record how good it was to see politicians from both sides of the ministerial divide taking down the old enemy at cricket ten days ago.

Ministers, scrutineers and even Law Officers worked together, getting the important job of beating Guernsey done, and having a laugh into the bargain.

As a bunch of politicians, they make good cricketers.

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