We are witnessing the slow death of our democracy. That's a controversial comment to start a blog with, but what better way is there to attract the attention of a reader?
So where does this thought come from? I had a throw away comment made to me from a States Member, who I will not name as I am not doing personality politics. The comment was something like “see, you do not need propositions to run a government”.
It was made after the defeat of Deputy Mézec’s proposition to introduce a simple form of rent control and longer tenancies, which seemed to lose in part because members accepted a promise of some kind of action in the future after a “consultation” on what is referred to as a “white paper”.
What are the consequences of believing that propositions are unnecessary for the government? First of all, we lose the unique democracy we have in Jersey, where a non-government (now called non-executive members of the Assembly) can bring any proposition and have it debated within 6 weeks. This is important and unique as it delivers a direct democracy for members of our society. And gives a unique and responsible role to all members of the Assembly. We can make genuine change or at least attempt to. And remember one key fact, the Assembly has primacy in the governance of our Island.
We are currently witnessing an Assembly where very little is coming from the government in the way of regulation or proposition. In the last full meeting of the Assembly there was just one proposition to debate. And it was rejected apart from one part on a Rent Tribunal that the Minister had brought previously but failed to complete. So again, back benchers bring the change needed.
And if we look at the level and amount of questioning, I would estimate at least 80% of these come from Reform Jersey. And it is clear that for some members, even the question time appears to be an annoyance rather than a crucial part of accountability in our democracy.
So what type of government do we have? My fear is that we are developing a structure of a Council of Ministers within which we have a small cabal of ministers that are driving all policy with the assistance of influential officers. And what this requires to work is the nullifying of all dissent, including the States Assembly and in particular Reform Jersey.
Whether this is a “Better Way” led cabal or a wider group who met together before the election, it is difficult to say. We do not have any level of transparency on the decision making process, or indeed on the drivers behind the “Better Way” party that isn’t a party.
It seems that we have a form of collective responsibility within government where Ministers and Assistant Ministers will be expected to vote with the government. But who is making the decision over this vote? Who holds the non-party Whip?
Debate, questions, challenge and genuine political discourse are vital for a healthy, functioning democracy. The influence of a few, powerful voices with vested interest is not good for a democracy. And we do not know how these voices are influencing government decision making. We do not know the political drivers behind the scenes or the groups influencing or even running the government and the Island.
I urge all voters to think very carefully about the governance that is developing.
Are Ministers trying to stop propositions from back benchers? Are officers doing the same? Are we entering a phase of apathy to the processes of the Assembly from its members that will lead to a dangerous erosion of our unique democracy?
And this leads to wider questions.
Who owns the press on this Island? How are they involved with governmental groups behind the scenes? Where is the transparency?
Members can get elected on all sorts of platforms and promises. From single issues to generic statements that cover a myriad of areas. But it is how they vote and how they engage in the Assembly that really counts.
The "Better Way," led government talks so much about collaborative work whilst opposing any real action. The biggest enemy of a democracy is apathy. When combined with politics that looks to bland messages about working together. We face a real threat to meaningful and effective political discourse.
Government is not a friendship group but a difficult workplace requiring genuine principles to build genuine consensus. It needs dissenting voices to break the doors of the echo chambers of thought.
And I know that the response will be that the government undertakes public consultation. But how does it do this and which voices are listened to? The current consultation on rental law is 46 pages long. I have promoted it with constituents and I understand the issues they have raised with the format and detail required. It requires a name and contact. For some tenants, this raises concern. I still urge people to try to complete something in this consultation. Your voice must be heard if we are to make the changes really needed.
I will be questioning the process, the data produced and how it is used to develop the much awaited legislation that needs to come to the Assembly.
I write this to raise the issue in public. To encourage all Assembly members and those who voted for them to think carefully about the function of our Assembly.
Democracies die when those who give consent lose interest and those in power feel entitled to that power. We all have a role to play in protecting our democracy. I hope our government will have a relentless focus on maintaining our unique democracy,
Deputy Rob Ward