Monday, 17 June 2013

A Power of Recall

Over the past few weeks in the UK there have been several debates that appear to have captivated a degree of public attention. Not least of these is the issue of equal marriage (which it won’t surprise any of my readers that I fully support and hope will become law in Jersey soon enough). But something that has also been discussed is the idea of introducing a system of recall for politicians, so that it is possible for the public to sack an MP before their term is up.

I think this is a great idea and want to suggest how it could work in Jersey.

For those that haven't heard of the concept before, a recall motion is essentially a petition that is launched by members of public which, if it can obtain the signatures of a certain percentage of the electorate, triggers a by-election for that MP's seat.

It is meant to exist as a safeguard to keep politicians on their toes and not to thoughtlessly disregard their manifesto pledges

At the moment there is nothing to stop an MP being elected, working for 6 months, realising that it isn't really their thing, then running off to relax on a beach in Barbados for the remaining 4 and a half years, at the taxpayers expense.

Or worse - an MP is elected on a key manifesto pledge of, for example, abolishing university tuition fees, only to then enthusiastically vote in favour of tripling them at the very beginning of their term in office.

They say a week is a long time in politics, so 5 years is close to an eternity. Knowing that their judgement day is not for a very long time, after all sorts of other political scandals may have passed to fog their constituents memories, it could be easy for an MP to get very complacent and forget the promises they made.

Knowing that there is a mechanism for kicking them out, if they are not conducting themselves in the way that they promised to get elected, would keep MP's from selling out and losing touch with the public.

It’s a system that already exists in many countries, including the USA and Venezuela. Most notably, former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected in an election that was triggered by a recall.

There is of course a legitimate worry that well organised groups could hijack the process and easily gather the required signatures so they can try and kick out a politician, not because they have done something wrong, but because those interested have a political agenda and want to get someone of their party/ philosophy elected in time for an upcoming vote.

However it has to be said that even in America, where those with pretty dodgy political agendas are very well organised, that this doesn't seem to have been the case. Recall petitions are launched very regularly, however it's only on few occasions that they succeed.

I think that the public would be smart enough to see through a petition that was launched by people with ulterior motives, rather than genuinely concerned citizens disappointed with the behaviour of a politician.

In the UK, Tory MP Zac Goldsmith brought forward a bill (which was subsequently voted against) which is very easy to read and worth having a look at to get an idea of how a recall system could work in a British context.

Now the government is looking to bringing forward legislation for a recall system, however it would be one in which a committee of MPs would decide who is up for recall. Meaning the public would have no direct say in initiating it, instead leaving it exclusively to those with a political agenda and wanting to get rid of those that are causing too much of a fuss and refusing to obey the party whips. It would be nothing more than a tool for getting rid of the George Galloway's or the Nadine Dorries' and certainly not in the interests of advancing democracy.

So how could a recall system work in Jersey?

Here's what I think the process could look like -

  • Either available for download on the States website, or by request to the States Greffe, there should be an official petition template available (where the States Member and constituency is filled out) that must obtain signatures from 1% of the electorate in the relevant constituency.
  • Either the Greffe or the Parish Secretary (whichever is deemed to be more appropriate) then checks the petition against the electoral register to make sure all signatures are legitimate.
  • Then a polling booth should be set up in the Parish Hall to be left open for one month, in which time electors could come and sign the petition.
  • If at the end of the 4 weeks a significant percentage of the electorate has signed it (say 30%) then a by-election must be held on a certain day, in which the recalled candidate is free to choose whether or not to stand in.

Given how low our election turn outs are I think a 30% threshold isn't unreasonable, but it could be altered depending on how it works out.

So, since such a system could easily be put in place regardless of what electoral system we end up having, could a States Member bring forward a proposition to implement it? Deputy Trevor Pitman told me that he did once have a proposition drafted and approved that would do such a thing, but for one reason or another it was shelved.

I have no doubt that no-matter who brought such a proposition forward, it would never pass in a million years because the vast majority of States Members we have just don't care once iota about political accountability and, frankly, are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to understanding the philosophy behind democracy and just want to carry on managing the island like a board of directors with as little interference as possible.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Food for thought on reform

So PPC have finally lodged the draft legislation to implement Option B into law in time for the next elections.

It is due to be debated in the States on the 16th July and can be read here -

There are a few important things to note.

Firstly, this proposed law does maintain the Troy Rule. The draft law specifically limits the number of ministers and assistant ministers to 18 so that they will continue to be a minority administration, capable of being defeated by a vote in the assembly. This was of fundamental importance and it is obviously very regrettable that PPC couldn't have made some statement about their intention to keep the Troy Rule before the referendum so we wouldn't have had to waste time debating whether it would stay or not and it wouldn't have put off some democrats from voting for Option A because of their fears about losing the Troy Rule.

However, the Troy Rule only really counts for anything in a chamber without the Constables. The purpose of the Troy Rule is to allow the executive to be held to account and to have to fight for every vote to be won. The Constables, more often than not, don't contribute at all to debates and just vote "pour" to whatever the Council of Ministers propose. Under Option B, the Constables will likely carry on not being ministers, meaning that close to half of the 24 members dedicated to scrutiny/ opposition/ backbench roles, are going to be of that category that is really least fit to be carrying out that role.

So fat lot of good that does us.

Secondly, the law is also specifically changing the Constables from being "ex officio" members of the States, to full members in their own right. This presumably fits in with the recommendation by the Electoral Commission that all States Members consider their primary duty to be as States Members rather than anything else.

However this change will only be de jure. De facto, Constables will still be elected to run their Parishes, and it will be their attitude to that that determines their electoral prospects and their Parishioners will carry on primarily judging them on that basis.

It is also a change that the other campaign groups totally failed to address in the big debate. In fact, I remember at the St Mary debate I pointed out this proposed change to the role of Constable, only to see at the back of the hall two Constables (Gallichan and Mezbourian) shaking their heads. I had to point out to them that I was simply reading from the report and they can't shake their heads as if it isn't a fact (but then again, facts weren't Option B's strong point).

It is a change that changes the nature of Constable and in my opinion totally undermines it. If they are full States Members, then they have to focus on that, rather than their Parishes. But then when they are in the States, the questions will still be there about their mandates and how they all have an equal vote to the Deputies who will be the real heavy weights, doing all the work and fighting much tougher elections. It will create a tension that will be bad for both the States and the Parishes.

Thirdly, the report alongside the draft law makes a lot of assumptions that I think are not safe to make.

The report says that because most voters backed either Options A or B, that is evidence that most voters wanted a smaller States Assembly.

Well, how can they be in the minds of those that voted and decide what they thought?

I know many people (and if I'm honest myself included) that voted for a reform option in spite of the fact that it would lead to fewer members. Many actually thought that 42 was too few, but that after a few years that would be realised and the number could be increased.

They were voting for reform because they agreed with the package of reforms on balance. Just because you vote for something, doesn't mean you unequivocally agree with all of it.

I simply make this point, because it isn't right to presume to know why people voted the way they did. False presumptions could lead to making mistakes in the future.

It's like those that say that the majority of those that voted wanted to keep the Constables in. Well how do they know that? Many people may have wanted to get rid of the Constables, but voted for Option C because they were adamant that we had to keep the Senators and thought it was worth paying that price. Or take for example Constable Norman who supported Option B, even though he doesn't believe the Constables should be in the States automatically, because he believes that should only be done if the Parishes are retained as the primary form of constituency (basically the Clothier reforms).

It is not safe to assume any particular fact when the question was on a package of reforms than people had to work out on balance what they liked.

So the new system will be voted in the States on the 16th July, but because it is a constitutional amendment, it will require a majority of all States Members to vote for it (not just a majority of States Members present for the debate). So that is 26 votes it needs. I can count 25 I think are likely to vote for it, so it's going to be close.

Senator Le Marquand said before the referendum that he would oppose Option B for the rest of his life. And in a bizarre change of tradition, that particular politician is sticking to his word! He has lodged this proposition which is due to be debated after the reform law -

Since it is debated after the reform law it is a total waste of time. But further to that, the report along side the proposition says nothing on the issue of Option B being an unfair system. Surely that is the whole point in rejecting Option B? Because it is unfair. The fact that it was endorsed by a tiny number of people is just ammunition in that argument, not the basis for it in itself.

Option B should be rejected on the basis that it is unfair, and I hope that the States see sense and make that point.

Frankly, the politicians we have that are wanting to make the States less accountable should be ashamed of themselves. This is the 21st Century and those wanting to run away from accountability and democracy should find other careers, because politics is about democracy and we need people that understand that simple point.