‘This is no golden age of politics’
‘BACK to the good old days’ could have been the sub-title to the rather self-indulgent States debate on when our government should meet.
The decision to adopt the slightly weird schedule of meetings, put forward by Deputy David De L’Isle, was sold on the basis that it was a reversion to the way business used to be handled in some golden age of politics. In reality it was anything but.
Rather, it smacked of cosseted modern deputies being willing to set aside far fewer dates in their diaries for States sittings than their predecessors did, despite being paid far more. Throw in the fact that at the same time they awarded themselves a humungous nine-week summer recess next year, followed by an equally mind-boggling seven-week Christmas recess, and it starts to look like some of them expect the job to be a bit of a sinecure.
I suppose to be fair I should point out that committee meetings, constituency work and other political duties continue throughout the recesses but we don’t let deputies over-egg that argument.
Politics definitely moves into a lower gear when the Assembly itself isn’t sitting. These are also the times of year when most deputies look to take a break off-island. Although with the new schedule accepted that may not be so important. After all we can now holiday three weeks a month without ever missing a States sitting.
I suppose some will accuse me of sour grapes. After all the De L’Isle proposals were put forward as an amendment to one of my own committees’ proposals. So I would be against them just for the sake if it, wouldn’t I? Actually, not at all.
I am no yes man on SACC and while I have been convinced, against my natural inclinations, that the typical workload of the modern States is more suited to regular three- weekly sittings than the old monthly cycle, I was never closed-minded on that issue. If what was being proposed was a genuine return to States meetings on the last Wednesday of each month, with members returning a fortnight later to complete any unfinished business if required, I could have seen the argument in favour. It was no such thing.
For example, in future if we are halfway through an important debate when Friday tea time arrives, instead of a one-and-a-half week break in proceedings [as per the old days] or a two-and-a-half week break [as per now] it may instead be as much as four-and-a-half weeks. After all we mustn’t clog up deputies’ diaries because they may have more important things to do.
Just to illustrate. When I first joined the States not only were members pretty much unpaid, but at the start of each year they had to block out 21 sets of two days in their diaries if they wanted to make sure they didn’t want to miss a States sitting.
Over the coming year, as we complete the current set of three-weekly cycles, that figure will be 16 blocks of three or four days.
Then the following year, under the De I’Lsle/Paint masterplan, there will only be 13 sittings with one being limited to just considering the budget. The net result is that whereas in the ‘good old days’ there were just 31 weeks when deputies could be sure that no States sittings would impinge on the other commitments there will soon be 39 guaranteed debate-free weeks for our fully paid politicos. Nice work if you can get it.
However my real concerns are more serious than deputies appearing like lightweights who run shy of the debating chamber. The decision was apparently made on the basis that there had been too many very short meetings so far this term. There have been, but this is because the first year of any States term is always the quietest.
What happens when things hot up? How often will we get to the end of a three-day sitting and have to hold the remaining business over for a month?
Not only that but getting anything before the States will now take far longer. Why so? Because far from going back to the old days, deputies have taken bits of the old system and bits of the new. So matters submitted for debate will still have to come before the Assembly twice. The first time to be allocated a date for debate and the second time to be debated. With only meeting once a month that could take ages, even more so if the process straddles one of our uber-generous States recesses. And this system was sold on the basis of efficiency.
Of course some members claimed what they really wanted was a full return to the old system and that SACC could tweak the arrangements – but sadly few of them meant it. When I suggested that perhaps the logical extension of reduced numbers of meetings was a return to the old system of ‘spill-over dates’ when deputies returned to complete any unfinished business, there was a positive frisson of annoyance in the chamber.
Nor can we possibly adopt Deputy Ferbrache’s suggestion of setting spill over dates ad-hoc at the end of any uncompleted meeting. That would lead to far too many empty seats in big debates because the extra meeting date, decided at the 11th hour would clash with other commitments quite legitimately made for weeks when the States had resolved not to meet.
I’m afraid whichever way you look at it, the new [definitely not old] system looks like a travellers’ charter. As someone who likes getting off-island myself perhaps I should be pleased but I’m not.
Frankly, I’m embarrassed.