A blatant attempt to censor debate?

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From Deputy Geoff Southern.

I AM writing about the latest moves to make the States more ‘efficient’. At first glance this seems a reasonable measure, but closer examination reveals a blatant attempt by some ministers, and others (Senators Ozouf, Perchard and Shenton), who might be expected to know better, to stifle the healthy democratic increase in activity on the part of elected progressive politicians in the States.

No doubt they would refer to these progressive members, new and old, as ‘the opposition’ to the conservative establishment view. By picking on the length and content of speeches, as a populist starting point, these members, now backed by Privileges and Procedures, have established a bridgehead behind which other more noxious limits to backbenchers’ rights are proposed.

There is no doubt that backbenchers have become more active over recent years. The number of propositions lodged by backbenchers has risen to 51 in 2008 from 29 in 2006. The quality and quantity of questions, the basic means of holding ministers to account, continues to rise.

This is a healthy position. We are seeing the development of an effective and organised political dynamic in the assembly.

Equally, there is no doubt that life for ministers is becoming more difficult. Ministers’ propositions have been heavily amended or on occasion defeated. Misleading ministerial statements are challenged. Shoddy and partial reports are given short shrift by members and referred back.

Increasingly high quality, well researched work is brought to the States from the backbenches. Question time has become a real challenge. Again, this is a healthy position.

Some ministers, and one in particular, object to this. They would like to see a return to the old days when a minister just had to turn up on the day to get a proposition through. Intense lobbying behind closed doors had been done to ensure the right result.

The constables could be relied on to vote the ‘right’ way. The ministers’ request to ‘trust me, I have the Island’s best interests at heart’ went unchallenged. It was business as usual.

I use the word ‘business’ deliberately, because this is the business model of politics. It is Jersey plc.

The boss says: ‘I have decided, now go and do it’. The boss will not tolerate any argument, nor it seems do some ministers. The problem is that business is not democratic, whereas government is.

Some ministers do not wish to hear the contrary arguments, no matter how well put, and certainly not at length. Like children, they clap their hands to their ears and stamp their feet in the hope that the argument will go away.

Let’s talk turkey here and name names. This fuss has been brought to a head by the arrival of the new Deputy of St Mary, Daniel Wimberley, an elected member who has a comprehensive knowledge of green issues. He is an undoubted asset to the Chamber.

In the perhaps naive view, shared by many, that decisions should be based on research, fact and evidence, he has attempted to condense his lifelong studies into two speeches on the incinerator and on population.

That he failed to do this in under ten minutes (say) or whatever limits are proposed, should not start us on a set of radical changes.

He will learn, as many members have, that it is largely unproductive to speak for more than 20 minutes. Such skills must be learned; they cannot be imposed.

If we are naming names, then can anyone tell me the relevance of any of the contributions of Senator Terry (the good people of Jersey) Le Main to further the debate or, for that matter, what added value Deputy Ben (in a previous life) Fox contributes. At least his speeches are mercifully short.

Beware, members, if we start censoring the content of speeches, who knows what will be banned. Any attempt to censor will be to the detriment of our democracy.

As to increasing lodging periods for backbenchers’ propositions from the current two weeks, if the minister with his dozens of managers of this and directors of that cannot respond within two weeks, they are not worth their titles. What happened to their efficiency?

This proposal makes rapid response to urgent issues (Woolworths workers, etc) impossible and the backbenchers’ task of representing constituents more difficult. Will it be one rule for us and another for them?

Only last week the Chief Minister, no less, amended his own amendment ‘on the hoof’ in the Chamber. Would that have been allowed for a backbencher? Almost certainly not. Proposals to vet propositions – how, and by whom, one has to ask – are obvious forms of control and censorship.

Further proposals to limit the number of amendments and propositions that a private member can bring are a fundamental attack on members’ ability to represent their constituents.

They will be fiercely opposed by all democratically aware members of the States and many of the voting public.

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