Our Chief Minister must look far beyond the parish pump

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Where was Guernsey’s Chief Minister last Friday? He was at a conference in Hong Kong organised by Guernsey Finance just before moving on to Shanghai to meet various Chinese officials.

Earlier in the month Guernsey’s Chief Minister was at the Conservative Party Conference meeting members of the Shadow Cabinet. Where was our Chief Minister? He was at home dealing with important domestic matters. Is this a difference in style or a difference in substance?

Well it’s probably a bit of both, but it’s most definitely an indication of how we must all broaden our horizons beyond the purely domestic and immediate.

It certainly shows how difficult it is going to be for both islands to meet mounting domestic pressures while also developing the islands’ international personalities and doing what needs to be done to support our most important industry – international (not domestic) financial services.

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that meeting officials from neighbouring France is any less important than meeting officials overseas who have hardly even heard of the Island. It would also be entirely wrong to suggest that our Chief Minister would be reluctant to hop on a plane and fly several thousand miles just to spread the word about Jersey if he thought it was necessary.

But the evidence suggests that neither the Council of Ministers nor the States, nor indeed the Island as a whole, fully appreciates how vitally important it is to engage with government leaders and officials in any part of the world where we have a significant interest. As far as I am aware we haven’t even made an effort to get to know some of the politicians who could make up the next government of the United Kingdom.

By contrast, Guernsey’s Chief Minister boasts that he has met all of them bar one or two. He has concentrated heavily on building relationships where he thinks a closer understanding will help Guernsey’s case. This might reflect the different styles of the two leaders, but in the current climate it’s probably what’s needed to get results.

However, not even Guernsey’s Chief Minister has gone far enough. There are a lot of countries we should be engaging with and he is a busy man.

Take the EU, for example. Isn’t part of the current fuss about the EU code of conduct and our zero-ten tax strategy because few in the EU understand or appreciate what the islands are about? If we had built up a relationship with just a few of the people involved, wouldn’t they have been more understanding of our interests?

The current position is that these various EU groups make their decisions with no-one speaking out for us. I know both Chief Ministers insist that the UK does what it can to look after our interests, and I’m sure it does, although its level of understanding of the islands may not be all that great if it has to carry out regular reviews of what we’re getting up to.

Then there are issues such as the EU’s proposed directive on alternative investment managers, which could have a significant impact on the Channel Islands’ fund management industry. Those putting the directive together would apparently welcome constructive input from the islands, according to consultants in Brussels.

So it’s all about building up relationships internationally, not only to deal with specific issues affecting the Island such as the directive and zero-ten, but also helping to create greater international understanding of the Island, which is desperately needed.

We are not going to be able to do everything, of course, but we certainly are going to have to do much more, and that requires more resources.

The problem is that some Islanders even quibble about the amount of taxpayers’ money devoted to promoting the finance industry overseas. If they think any of it is wasted, they should join one of Jersey Finance’s marketing trips. They would quickly realise how hard a job it is and how difficult it is to explain what Jersey’s financial institutions can offer when the people you are talking to can’t even find the Island on a map. One overseas professional adviser apparently believed that Jersey was close to Cyprus.

Then even if they know about the Island, many of them will have totally the wrong idea about what Jersey is up to. If they have seen anything in the media about Jersey at all, it will probably not be good news.

The local media might well be keen to announce the good results of an IMF audit or an inquiry by the UK government, but there won’t be much of a mention in the UK or international press. However, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will report any bad news about the Island in relation to allegations that it’s a tax haven.

So there is a very big job to be done on three fronts. We must correct misinformation about the Island, promote its benefits as a leading international finance centre and help to influence decisions taken elsewhere that will affect us.

That means that the States will have to pay much more attention and devote much more money to international affairs. Certainly they will have to look a little bit further than the parish pump.

Peter Body is editor of Business Brief magazine

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