States reform: Let’s not get hung up on the Constables

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The Millennium Park had apparently been consigned to the back burner once again; the National Lottery was unlikely to happen in Jersey; the hike in electricity prices wasn’t going to be reversed; Jersey wouldn’t be adopting a zero tolerance towards alcoholic drivers; and, surprise, surprise, the States wouldn’t after all be reforming themselves, their mandate or their representation.

Subsequently, out of the jaws of certain defeat came a modest glimpse of progress. It might not have been a defining moment, but it was enough for some Members to hail it as a breakthrough – two leaps forward, no less, in the form of a proper general election for all Members on the same day and the end to the spurious practice of two-timing the electorate with a trial run for a Senatorial seat and then, when rejected, a final grab for the Chamber as a Deputy – so long as removing that from the toy-box didn’t bruise anyone’s human rights.

Why is it that whenever political reform is raised, we run for cover – or rather, to the rural comfort zones of the Establishment?

Among those cosy, impenetrable homesteads dwells a reassuring resistance to change. Maybe too, it’s because, as things stand, any impetus for change has forever been in the gift of those in need of reform in the first place.

Whether it’s sleazy MPs in the UK or greedy bankers, the art of procrastination and paying only lip-service to reform allows emasculation to the point where bonuses are back and the MPs are preparing to stand for re-election.

Are we in fact wedded to the ‘laissez-faire’ approach to sorting out difficulties, where ‘change’ amounts to simply watering down proposals and doing the least possible?

After all, a debate in the House every five years or so means it’s being kept under consideration, doesn’t it? Hey ho, the boxes are ticked – so that’s all right then. Sadly, that leaves us retaining a veritable hotch-potch of systems.

There’s no question that in our current 53-party system, voter representation is greater in ‘the green zone’. Any attempt to redress the imbalance would in fact have to be accepted by those required to cede it, and short of a revolution, ‘people power’ is arguably the least significant consideration regulating the composition of the Assembly.

The various propositions tinkering with the number of Members and the size and distribution of constituencies was probably academic, given that the appetite on the floor of the House for altering the underlying status quo was as fired up as the rockets in Terry McDonald’s lock-up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when challenging decision-making descends to displacement activity, we’ve found the arguments sidetracked by the perceived threat to remove parish Constables from the Assembly – as if they were being exiled to some remote Martello tower or other suitable Heritage property on their patch.

Any rustling of the cushions on the Constables’ benches can be relied upon to provoke a storm of emotive huffing.

But let’s turn negative into positive. Our States Chamber is the equivalent of national government. It traditionally housed Constables because in bygone days, Constables, as ‘fathers of parishes’ – a role they continue to fulfil – represented the only representative authority there was. (No call for ‘mothers’ in them days!)

But that was then, and this is now. It is indeed possible to be both radical and forward thinking, without getting ‘hung up’ on Constables.

The Connétable, to use the official title, is in effect the Chief Executive of a community – however large or small the parish or what it contains. Effective stewardship and promotion of the parish is vital, but look across the water to France or the UK – city mayors don’t sit in Parliament.

Their role is both powerful and influential. Our local experience where a busy parish Constable can also serve as a full-time member of the Council of Ministers is little short of absurd. Furthermore, there is a tendency in the Chamber for Constables to be regarded uncharitably as representing a Nimby approach to Island consensus.

Until recently, how many long-serving Constables had actually earned their seat as the result of a contested election? It’s not unreasonable to assume that the attitude of voters to those managing the parish should be different from those in pan-Island government.

Far better, then, for Deputies to stand and fall on their record than rely on patronage through parish family line.

Shortly before the Assembly vote, the benefits of a slimmed-down Chamber were outlined from the platform of a meeting at the Town Hall, by the only non-politician on the platform, Dr Elena Moran, chairman of the Community Relations Trust.

While her suggestions bore echoes of Clothier, she provided a refreshing update, proposing a Chamber of 43 equals representing the Island’s population of 86,000-plus, divided into constituencies of 2,000. Surprisingly, given the current demographic spread, that works out neatly, thus: St Helier 14; St Saviour 6; St Brelade 5; St Clement 4; Grouville/St Martin 4; St Peter/St Ouen 4; Trinity/St John 3; St Mary/St Lawrence 3.

In the end, much will depend on how we want to be divided. Tribal divisions, loyalties and aversions are important and emotive. The best is not always the most acceptable. But come 2011, if the anomalies in the current representation are ignored, to plagiarise Constable Len Norman in the recent debate, ‘large areas of populated Jersey will remain disenfranchised on the altar of traditional vested interest’.

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