The flies and the furious
Columnist Richard Graham has been on a States-led diet of coffee, flies and fury over four days of States meetings last week
IT HAS been put to me that my parliamentary sketches give some deputies a hard time whilst treating a select few as a protected species. Not true.
I start with a blank sheet of paper and then just let members write the script for me as I listen. I dispense praise and leg-pulling impartially to those who deserve it, whoever they happen to be. No member is out of bounds.
Unfortunately, many States members hardly ever say or do anything interesting. That’s not a criticism – we elect our representatives to govern us, not to entertain us. Only a few consistently offer me any worthwhile material.
Some of these are more prone to making chumps of themselves or giving us a laugh than others; indeed, a handful have shown themselves to be serial performers. By the same token, only a few members regularly distinguish themselves by the high quality of their contributions. My sketches simply reflect the nature of the current Assembly.
The initial mood music at last week’s States meeting was sombre, verging on tenebrious. The opening bars of the Government Work Plan Symphony No.3 in E exceedingly flat Minor — known amongst the musical glitterati as the Doomsday Symphony — were played by Deputy Murray, a mournful bassoon dispensing notes of glumness and dread to a rapt audience, many of whom were hoping for nothing more challenging than the chorus of Sweet Caroline.
Deputy Murray presented a dystopian view of Guernsey’s prospects of riding the current storm that is raining apparently intractable problems upon most of the world. His dejection was magnificent, worthy of the poet Edgar Allan Poe at his bleakest.
Absent was the optimistic vision of his bid for the vacant slot on P&R in November last year, his promise of a fresh, courageous approach to government, and any mention of his intention to turn the airport into an enterprise zone that would inject new vigour into the economy. There he was last week, a mere eight months later, bemoaning that a combination of Brexit, Covid-19 and Russia’s war with Ukraine had changed the world forever, leaving Guernsey with no alternative but to adjust to ‘the new norm’.
As an old-timer who has heard similar rhetorical declarations many times in my life, I thought to myself, ‘That’s the problem with these youngsters, no sense of historical context’. Deputy Murray did, however, offer a subliminal message of hope – all would not be lost if the Assembly agreed to introduce GST.
To be fair to him, he was simply acting as the mouthpiece for what amounted to a ‘we told you so’ warning from P&R.
Even a hint that GST might return to the table was enough to prompt a jaunty piccolo solo from Deputy Dyke, who sought to lift the audience’s spirits with the reminder that Guernsey, without the pesky GST, was better placed to survive the storm than just about anywhere else in the world.
Other members made the point – obvious to most of us – that if Brexit, Covid and war in Europe had never happened, the principal threat to our public finances would still remain because it’s structural in nature. To put it bluntly, too many of us are not dying early enough.
Not only that, although quite keen to live longer, not enough of us are willing to work for a living beyond the age of 65. The following statistics tell the story. There are around 7,250 in our population who are aged between 65 and 74, yet only 820 (11%) are still in paid employment of any sort. What a waste of talent? What’s more, it’s a waste that’s crippling public finances unhealthily dependent on taxation of earned income.
Some members often refer to a ‘demographic time-bomb’. They shouldn’t. Bombs are dangerous because they go off suddenly and unexpectedly. Our steadily ageing population is not explosive in nature. We should think of it as a predictable, demographic and cultural headwind into which Guernsey, like much of the developed world, has for decades been marching with foolish disregard for the actions necessary to live with its consequences. Throughout the last political term I urged the States and the private sector to embrace a cultural change by actively planning to recycle the post-65ers. I failed utterly to convince anybody, and nothing I heard in last week’s reset of the Government Work Plan suggests that anything has changed.
That’s enough of the serious stuff. Now for the knockabout entertainment.
The debate of Guernsey Electricity’s accounts treated us to yet another of the tantrums which we have come to expect from Deputy Inder.
With each successive incoherent rant, usually directed at Deputies Roffey or De Sausmarez, he strikes an increasingly comic figure, the Assembly’s very own Basil Fawlty. In the TV series, it was the meek and hapless waiter Manuel who bore the brunt of Basil’s hot temper, but Deputy Roffey is not one to whom the adjectives meek and hapless can be applied. Far from it, he usually wipes the floor with his regular tormentor, as he did yet again. Apart from its comic element, last week’s exchange offered a serious observation about standards of conduct within the Assembly as the following extract demonstrates.
An irate Deputy Inder: ‘...what is this going to mean Deputy Roffey, I’ll do it through Rule 14 questions, and to you Deputy De Sausmarez, we need some answers, what are you going to cost us?’
When Deputy Roffey calmly responded that he couldn’t speak for Deputy De Sausmarez but he himself didn’t intend to cost the community anything, and doubted that she did either, an indignant Deputy Inder appealed to the Bailiff: ‘Point of correction, sir. I didn’t ask what Deputy Roffey and Deputy De Sausmarez were going to cost...’
Bogus points of correction and points of order are deployed as a matter of routine in this Assembly, a tactic that reflects badly on those deputies who regularly resort to it.
Commenting on the latest States accounts, Deputy Queripel was at pains to assure members that at £1.8m., the cost of their salaries represented excellent value for money. He went on to lament that whenever he engages with members of the public and starts to tell them how hardworking he is, they tend to walk away. He attributed such behaviour to their unwillingness to hear the truth, but I suspect some members may have had a different explanation which they politely kept to themselves.
Deputy Matthews, fresh from his spell in dunce’s corner for the sin of gross irrelevance during the previous States meeting, showed no signs of repentance.
Debate of the harbours and airport accounts had been sensibly conducted at an appropriately strategic level until he rose to make his contribution. This was limited to complaining about the standard of the airport cafeteria’s coffee.
Even the Bailiff, who is always commendably protective of members’ dignity, couldn’t hide the sound of his incredulity at what he had just heard. Mind you, I bet Deputy Taylor’s ears pricked up. He might have spotted an opportunity.
Two sets of Rule 11 questions were posed. Deputy St Pier quizzed the Development & Planning Authority president about its policy for delegating decisions to the planning staff. Answering the written questions is dead easy since they are submitted well in advance. The true test of a president’s mettle is in coping extempore with the supplementary questions. Oh dear! It didn’t go well.
Next up was Deputy De Lisle, who hoped to learn more about the closure of Herm School. The Education, Sport & Culture president treated the Assembly to a truly impressive display of ducking and weaving that would have been envied by Sugar Ray Robinson in his prime.
At the end, all that Deputy De Lisle had learned was that Herm School hadn’t closed, but wasn’t open either.
The debate of Guernsey Waste accounts created an appropriate stink. Deputy Dyke advised the States’ Trading & Supervisory Board president that the States could save money if the island’s food waste were given to a swarm of ravenous, black flies. They would eat it all for free.
At this suggestion, the cry of ‘Oh no!’ from the neighbours of Castel Farm Eggs drifted through the open windows of the Assembly. Undeterred, Deputy Dyke insinuated – on the thinnest of hearsay evidence – that there was something dodgy going on in the tendering process for the disposal of waste food.
Deputy Roffey’s reply was to the effect that if there was any dodginess, it didn’t lie within either STSB or P&R’s procurement team. He then read out an extract from an email which had not been intended for his eyes. It was from Deputy Meerveld to the owner of the black flies. Let’s just say that the email was illuminating.
Members are now on their summer break. You can spot them easily on the beach. They’re the ones immersed in reading the Electricity Strategy that they promised to study before they next meet in September.