On Monday the Electoral Commission published it's interim report on electoral reform, which you can read here. They are also going to send copies to every household in the island. The public consultation is now back on for you to submit your views on what they have proposed. I encourage you all to do so, or attend one of their public meetings. I'm preparing a submission and will post it here when it is completed (though it will essentially just repeat the points I am making here).
The first point I want to make is that, in some ways, the recommendations is better than I could have expected, but there are still some issues that need to be addressed, particularly process. Much of what the campaign group Reform Jersey that I am involved with had been saying has been said to be accepted by the commission.
A brief summary of the recommendations are as follows -
- Abolition of the position of Senator and the island wide constituency.
- Island to be divided up into 6 super-constituencies, based on combining parishes (with St Helier split into two), with roughly equal populations.
- The number of States Members to be 42.
- Each elected on the same day for a 4 year term.
- The issue of whether Constables remain in the States to be put to a public referendum.
- Thus, the States would either be entirely the new Deputies, or 12 Constables and 30 Deputies.
The commission has further said that it is still considering the possibilities of adopting a transferable voting system and the possibility of an upper chamber.
One major criticism that Reform Jersey had with the commission was it's apparent lack of guiding principles behind that reform. We said that any reform must be based on an idea of what "democracy" is and how the best way to practically form one in Jersey is, rather than just shifting things about to see if it works. A key moment in the public hearings was the interview with Daniel Wimberley who really took them to task over the issue and interrogated them on their strategy. The transcript can be read here.
Reform Jersey argued that any reform must have these three principles at it's core -
- Each voter should have the same number of votes.
- Each district should have the same population.
- The system should be simple and user friendly.
The first thing to note about the interim report is that they overtly state that these three principles were accepted. Including the most welcome addition of a fourth principle that said "A candidate should generally require a significant number of votes in order to be elected to the Assembly". Obviously this is something we welcome.
What I also noticed was this particular line "With thriving debate, and greater public participation, Jersey’s government will have a better claim to be founded upon the bedrock of popular consent."
This is the first time they have actually hinted on what the point of this whole thing is. You'd have thought with this as your supposed starting ground it would be very difficult to go wrong. But all is far from over yet and it is still possible for it all to go wrong.
Referendum v Referendums
Interestingly the commission have declined to make any decision on the Constables (which would have resulting in strong criticism from either side, no matter what) and said that it should be put to the public in a referendum.
Now, I am not scared of a referendum. I'm confident that in a fair contest, my side of the argument would win. But I do have real problems with this both on principle and practicality.
On the principle, the commission has laid out their guiding principles and they are simply incompatible with keeping the Constables. If the commission believes all districts should have the same population, they cannot also say keeping the Constables is acceptable. It appears that even Senator Bailhache is admitting that if the public chose the version of their recommendations that kept the Constables, it would be even less democratic than the system we have now. So why even offer it as an option?
To offer it for a direct vote also accepts the principle that these things should be decided by majority vote. Democracy isn't about just doing what the majority say, it's about much broader principles. If the majority decided that red haired people shouldn't be allowed to vote, even though that's a majority decision, it's not democratic, because it doesn't accept the principle of each person being equal. That is the crucial point. The Constables in the States is not democratic by objective standards.
But there are also the practical implications to wonder. I had always thought that the commission would come up with recommendations and that would be put to the people in a simple yes or no question like "do you agree with the Electoral Commissions findings?". Simple, no ambiguity and no room for interpretation.
The new proposal complicates things.
What happens now? Is there going to be two referendums? One for the Constable issue, the other for the rest of the proposals? Will there just be one referendum on the Constables and no option for the status quo? Or will there be one referendum but with three options?
All of these have problems.
If there are two referendums, what happens if the public vote to get rid of the Constables, but then vote against the remainder of the recommendations? Or if no one wants either option, so everyone stays at home instead of voting? Or if in the 3 option referendum, no option gets over 50%?
Any of these options will mean it is impossible to accurately interpret the will of the people. A complicated question means a complicated answer. If it isn't simple and straight forward, it will have no legitimacy and could even be open to legal challenge.
If the commission is truly committed to those principles it described, then it should not recommend another referendum. Just put the option without Constables to the people. That is the most effective way of solving this.
What was left out
The commission deliberately left out some issues that it is considering further.
The first of these was whether to swap from first past the post to a transferable voting system. As vocal I have been about my views on the Constables and democracy, at the end of the day, this issue really is just as important. The outcome of a first past the post election is almost always a legislature that does not accurately reflect the views of the population in a proportional way.
For a great argument in favour of STV check out former Senator Pierre Horsfall's submission to the Electoral Commission here.
The other thing they are considering is the use of an upper chamber to scrutinise legislation (as opposed to scrutinising policy). I've said before that I think it's a waste of time. If there are enough members in the main chamber, there is no need for another. That is where I may take issue at there only being 42 members. They say there should be fewer members, but to then suggest an upper house that would probably bring the number up seems to be contradictory.
It's clear that of the commissions two proposals, one of them is clearly a winner that would solve a huge amount of problems in Jerseys electoral system and is clearly far better than what we have now.
The option of 42 "Deputies" in super constituencies based on the Parishes isn't far off what Clothier recommended. I would prefer the constituencies were drawn up on population and kept up to date with an independent boundary commission, but what is being recommended is certainly tolerable. It's this option that we need to single out and demonstrate is clearly the better option.
One things for sure, regardless of all of this, I really am looking forward to getting stuck in with a proper public debate on the issue. This should be a big deal, being given a direct say on issues like this. There should be campaign groups, leafleting, knocking on doors, public debates, it's going to be great!
I'm really proud to be involved in such a positive campaign with Reform Jersey and glad that the principles we have argued for are being accepted.
Finally, please follow Reform Jersey to keep up to date with the campaign. What Reform Jersey stands for makes sense and is logical and our lobbying has clearly had an impact.
p.s. I did actually have to look up whether it's "referenda" or "referendums". Apparently referenda is for multiple issues, referendums for the same issue. Damn confusing!
Nick Le Cornu's blog here has video footage of the presentation and questions on the reform package.