OPINION: Playing with power

Whatever happened to collaboration and compromise? Deputy Peter Roffey is growing increasingly concerned about what he believes is the most ideologically-led States he has ever served in

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

HOW do you define what is ideology in politics? Well, blind ideology is obviously what drives all those who disagree with you. By contrast you, of course, are driven by pure practicality and common sense.

How do you spot a genuine, unreformed ideologue in politics? Easy. He or she is the one accusing everybody else of being driven by ideology.

So it is with some trepidation that I assert that this is, by a country mile, the most ideologically-led States I’ve ever served in. Exactly what that ideology is – other than populism – I’m still trying to fathom.

This really has nothing to do with the old cliches of left or right. All of the early Assemblies I served in were dominated by what political commentators would definitely describe as right-wingers – but very few of them were ideologues.

Rather they were all seeking, without allowing themselves to be trammelled by dogma, to find the best possible solutions to the island’s problems. They were open to all options, even if those options ran counter to their natural instincts. That allowed people of good faith to work together on practical policies, no matter what their political predilections may be.

I hope, and believe, this has always been my approach too. For example, the ‘zero-10’ tax policy was about as counter-intuitive to me as any policy could possibly be. But I threw myself behind it, at the risk of upsetting my support base, because I could see there was no practical alternative.

Sadly I think that sort of approach has gone. Whether it is the advent of parties, or the election of a particularly populist Policy & Resources Committee, I don’t know, but collaboration and compromise are in short supply. Rather, the messaging is uncompromising, one-dimensional and aimed at public point-scoring rather than consensus government. I don’t think it will end well.

Talking of consensus government, I promised last time to expand on my contention that P&R was drunk on power which doesn’t really exist. However, that power is definitely being wielded in significant and destructive ways because too many of my colleagues insist on pretending the emperor is fully clothed.

Let me give two examples. I could give 20 if space permitted.

Firstly, the idea that a single member of P&R should vet whether or not vacant posts throughout the civil service can be filled. Of course I want to bear down on the cost of our civil service wherever it is practical. I actually think most, if not all, of my colleagues do too. We all know money is incredibly tight.

With that in mind, few would argue against a system of rejustification before filling empty posts. But those decisions must be properly informed in order to avoid being destructive.

What utter hubris to believe either a single P&R member, or the five of them collectively, can reach these decisions over posts in parts of the service they know precious little about and with little or no consultation.

This from a committee which goes weeks without meeting properly and conducts much of its business via WhatsApp. Or, in the case of one such refusal, reaching the decision in the Beau Sejour Cafe, overheard by members of the public. They are going to end up doing serious damage if they continue in this way.

By the way, Guernsey has one of the smallest public administrations of any jurisdiction.

Of course efficiencies can be made. Services can be reorganised and some taken online, but it you believe there is lashings of fat just waiting to be stripped out, then you are plain wrong.

Of course I won’t be believed. The populist cliche about lazy pen-pushers is far too alluring. What’s the old joke? Q. How many people work in Frossard House? A. About half of them. It’s a great line, but utterly untrue. Of course there is the odd lazy bones and a few dubious posts – you find them in any organisation – but by and large we have a hugely hard-working public sector.

We also need to remember that the last time the States used a strict staff number limitation policy to restrain public spending it backfired and led to very expensive outsourcing. In the end it was decided the best restraint was capped budgets, with decisions over how to spend those budgets being taken by those on the ground who were far better informed than the then Civil Service Board.

Other examples of power-grabbing by P&R? Well, after protracted debate, the States decided there should be a planning inquiry into the possible disposal of inert waste at Longue Hougue South. So what the heck is P&R doing writing to the DPA ‘counselling them’ not to progress it?

If they don’t like the policy arrived at over years of painful consideration, then come to the States with another proposal. They haven’t. Nor did they even try to rescind these clear States resolutions when they had every opportunity to do so back in March. Instead they scurry around behind the scenes trying to subvert democratic decisions. Unheard of.

I also worry deeply about the tendency of our current political leaders to presume their expertise, in all sorts of areas, exceeds those of real subject experts. There have been numerous examples I have been aware of over the last few months. One probably relates to that letter to the DPA I have just referred to.

In a tripartite meeting with the States’ Trading Supervisory Board and Environment & Infrastructure, two members of P&R were very dismissive of the established States policy of using Les Vardes Quarry as a future reservoir. They demanded to know how much it would cost to link it into the island’s water network.

Back came the answer from Guernsey Water, which had already priced that job and has oodles of experience of such works.

‘I don’t believe that – it will be much more than that,’ was the response from the P&R amateurs.

Election to Policy & Resources does not bring with it knowledge and expertise in all things and if the current incumbents behave as if it does, we are surely heading for the rocks. But never mind, eh. The simplistic but effective public messaging will guarantee that none of it is their fault.

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