OPINION ‘Be careful what you wish for’

Deputy Heidi Soulsby considers whether Guernsey would benefit from an executive system of government

LAST CHANCE SALOON. That was the phrase that came to mind when the late Roger Perrot made a memorable speech in the States Chamber in 2015 when deputies were debating the second policy letter on proposals to change what was called, rather dryly, The Organisation Of States’ Affairs, more commonly known as the machinery of government.

Although a strong supporter of our consensus system of government, he was concerned that if the States did not behave in a rather more joined-up, corporate way, then, inevitably, the demand for executive government would be far too strong to be resisted.

It was resisted that term when the States was asked to make the binary choice between a ‘consensus’ or ‘executive’ system but, for him, it was getting to the last chance for the former.

Certainly, the debate, which has been going on for decades, has not gone away. Keeping to the Wild West theme, the last 30 years have been more like a duel in a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. The goodie and baddie eye each other up against a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, before pistols are drawn, fired and the baddie bites the dust.

Of course, the good guy wins in the end. The question is, what is good, what is bad, or indeed ugly, when it comes to the best form of government for our island?

Let’s get something straight here: we already have an executive system. That is what government is after all. Where Guernsey is unique is in having its parliament also acting as its government. When people say they want an executive system they really mean something more akin to Westminster, with power vested in a smaller number of ministers, rather than dispersed across the elected body.

Criticisms of the Guernsey system are that it is slow and cumbersome and there is some truth in that. Whereas in an executive system a minister can make a decision to do something that falls in his or her department’s mandate, in our consensus system decisions are made by committee, generally of five, requiring majority approval when it meets. It gets harder when issues span more than one committee. A matter that covers the mandate of two committees could mean 10 members in a room, plus supporting officers, and that doesn’t even include the non-States members. But parliament is the ultimate decision-making body and we are beholden to its 40 members to get things done.

Unlike in a cabinet system, there is no collective responsibility either. However, what does happen as an electoral term goes on is the tendency towards a silo mentality where members, generally, but not exclusively, go native and have loyalty to the committees on which they sit above everything else.

These are well known issues. But that doesn’t mean a ministerial system is perfect. I give you Jersey. It has a ministerial system with a Council of Ministers acting as its cabinet.

Has it resulted in faster decision making? Well, let’s use an example – hospitals – or as the strapline goes now in both islands, ‘our’ hospitals.

Jersey started looking at where to build their new hospital the year I was first elected to the States in 2012.

By the time I became HSC president four years later nothing had been decided and by the last election, and tens of millions of pounds later, things were still up in the air.

It was only last month that their Minister of the Environment approved the planning application and even that still requires the planning inspector to give the final nod.

Compare that to Guernsey where we submitted a policy letter to the States in 2018 setting out, in principle, our plans for the modernisation of the Princess Elizabeth Hospital and where we now have spades in the ground.

Admittedly, part of the process of getting there was tortuous and frustrating for those of us on HSC at the time, but it does demonstrate that the grass is not necessarily greener the other side of the fence.

What is often forgotten is that, in order to balance the fact power is concentrated in fewer hands, there is a greater need for an enhanced scrutiny function. So, whereas Jersey’s Council of Ministers comprises 10 members, out of what will now be 37 deputies after their election, they have five Scrutiny Panels and a Public Accounts Committee. Compare that to our single Scrutiny Management Committee.

It could be said that the weakness of the consensus system is its strength – the dispersal of power.

Those who say they want an executive system with a leader who can make decisions without recourse to others only want that so long as they get the ‘right’ person in power. And be careful what you wish for. History has shown dictators emerge from a popular ballot such that the world comprises democracies that are that in name only.

There is no effective scrutiny in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Be careful what you wish for.

And there are smaller jurisdictions that give us pause for thought when it comes to whether we should change our system of government.

The British Virgin Islands has hit the headlines recently with the arrest of its premier on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. Even before then there were concerns over the governance of the Caribbean archipelago, resulting in a Commission of Inquiry that reported last month. One paragraph within it I believe is important to have at the back of one’s mind when considering whether fundamental change is required:

‘….one of the root causes of the difficulties I have identified is the fact that many government decisions are made, not openly and transparently on the basis of objective criteria, but using an open-ended power involving unfettered and unmonitored discretion. I have recommended that there should be a review of such powers, with a view to curtailment and replacing them with decisions made in accordance with the principles of good governance.’

I can’t talk about the machinery of government without talking about political parties.

The first report of the Guernsey independent panel of inquiry set up in the 1990s effectively said that an executive system would inevitably lead to party politics.

By 2016 the argument was turned around and it was stated that it was difficult to see how the committee system could survive for long in a States dominated by members representing various political parties.

Since that debate we have seen political parties, official and unofficial, come and go. We should not change our system of government because there are parties, but neither should we forget that they exist. Whether the experience of the last two years has made the Guernsey public fall in love with political parties remains to be seen, but I think the jury’s out as to whether it has made for more effective decision making and whether that would be the case in a different system of government.

Is our current system perfectly adequate? Would it benefit from a few changes here or there, or does it require wholesale reform? The committee currently tasked with reviewing our machinery of government, like others before it, must grapple with these questions, but against the background of a world very different from even just eight years ago. We need to wait until next year to be able to watch how this current episode pans out, when, unlike High Noon, it will be the deputies, not the marshal, who will determine the ending.

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