Let’s talk term

A FEW months ago, many candidates for deputy were advocating island-wide voting. One argument in favour was: ‘It works in Jersey, so why not here?’

A FEW months ago, many candidates for deputy were advocating island-wide voting. One argument in favour was: ‘It works in Jersey, so why not here?’

Well, now Jersey has unveiled plans for the future constitution of its States and the proposal is to go for all deputies elected in six, roughly equal ‘super-constituencies’. One of the justifications for the move is – you’ve guessed it – ‘this sort of system works well in Guernsey’. Talk about a constitutional merry-go-round.

So, who is right? In my view, Jersey is correct to follow Guernsey’s lead. Particularly telling is their conclusion that electing all their deputies in one island-wide constituency is a non-starter for practical reasons. So they were left with the option of keeping the current senatorial system or going for a simplified arrangement, with only deputies in the States. They’ve thought deeply about it and are proposing the second option – albeit with a referendum on the role of constables.

Does this mean Guernsey got it spot on 10 years ago?

Not quite. We didn’t go far enough. Jersey has a far bigger population than us and yet they believe they can manage with 42 deputies and six constituencies. So, clearly we could easily slim down to four constituencies and 32 deputies.

I explained in my column some months ago how four rational, roughly equal, constituencies could be drawn up. My only real reservation is that, as so many candidates promised island-wide voting, it would amount to a breach of promise.

Talking about constitutional reform, here’s another thought.

The United States will go to the polls shortly to elect a new president. If Barack Obama is re-elected for a second term, it will be his last: the US constitution limits any individual to serving eight years as president. Is that a model Guernsey can learn from?

On the plus side, it tends to keep politics fresh, ensures administrations don’t run out of steam and makes presidents very driven during their second terms. Instead of slowing down as their initial enthusiasm cools, they redouble their efforts, knowing their time at the top is limited. Nor is there any fear of the personal electoral consequences of taking difficult decisions, although they do have to consider their party’s prospects.

On the downside, if a superb leader emerges who’s universally popular, it’s a huge loss to force him/her to step aside. It’s almost undemocratic. And it’s just possible that freedom from personal electoral fear during a second term could lead to recklessness.

Does any of this have any relevance for Guernsey? The most obvious office to apply such a rule to is that of chief minister. We don’t have a genuine chief minister because we don’t have real ministers, but that seems to be changing on the sly and I suspect a more formal centralisation of power will emerge from the current review. So should there be a limitation on the chief minister’s time in office?

It might seem like an academic question, as we are now onto our fourth chief minister and the record time in office so far is four years. But that could change. Certainly if the last incumbent had been re-elected, as he initially wished, his age would have made this a live issue in 2016.

I am actually very attracted to the concept of enforced refreshment at the top of politics but there are real dangers in a small community. Our talent pool of those wanting to be chief minister is limited and so we could find a highly capable person being forced to step aside when the choice of replacement was uninspiring.

What about applying the two-term rule to ministers and committee chairmen? In some ways, this makes more sense. A chief minister forced to step down may well quit politics altogether after doing time at the top. In some cases, that could be a huge loss to Guernsey’s government.

Ministers having to move to new departments are less likely to react that way. It would also ensure that senior politicians didn’t ‘go native’, seeing the world only from their department’s perspective.

Actually, the concept of a two-term limitation has already been adopted by the Policy Council in respect of the Overseas Aid Commission, without even getting States approval.

As a result, they’ve lost some very good members. Will they apply the same rules to themselves? I doubt it. And anyway, we know from experience they’d just suspend the rule if it got in the way.