States has to prove it is more than just populist sound bites

What to make of the general election result and, more importantly, the elections of committee presidents by the States and the fall from grace of Deputy Gavin St Pier, the head of the senior committee for the previous four years? Nick Mann gives his thoughts...

Volunteers at work counting the votes at Beau Sejour during the General Election. (28839653)
Volunteers at work counting the votes at Beau Sejour during the General Election. (28839653)

OMNISHAMBLES (noun) a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations.

I COULD stop there in an attempt to describe what has unravelled in the States chamber.

In the space of days we have moved a long way away from the exhilaration of the results of the general election being read out in the wee small hours of Beau Sejour, the ringing endorsement of the likes of Deputies Gavin St Pier, Heidi Soulsby and Andrea Dudley-Owen, the decapitation of some big names, the success of some youngish and more experienced outside faces and the humiliation of the Alliance Party.

All the ingredients were there from the electorate’s choices to create a successful recipe to guide the island through the next four years.

What has happened since is akin to letting a toddler loose with them, everything being chucked around the room, half of it ending up on the floor and the rest in the wrong pans.

It is important at this stage to counter one narrative – that the electorate voted for sweeping change thus giving this Assembly carte blanche to do anything it wants with impunity.

The results of 2020 tally with those of previous elections. There are smaller fry kicked out, unpopular committee heads lost, big names returned from all sides of the political spectrum with a ringing endorsement and about half the Assembly made up of promising new faces. The numbers are remarkably similar.

Nor is this a sudden lurch from the left to the right.

This last Assembly was never a enclave of comrades whistling the red flag, it just happened that its landmark changes had a social bent, from same-sex marriage to anti-discrimination laws.

It was always centre right, and it always will be, it has just shifted a notch.

Deputy Peter Ferbrache went into the P&R president’s race with the votes already in his back pocket, nothing that either candidate said made any difference. If it had, he would have lost.

It was simply an underwhelming performance packed with sound bites about taking ‘action’ – something he failed to do as president of Economic Development unless you count indiscriminately slashing arts grants only for them to be reinstated, or resigning when the going got sticky.

But he had already found a strong coalition with the Guernsey Party, whose leader he later nominated for P&R, the former States members who he sat with on the Charter 2018 group, and no doubt some new faces he had nominated or seconded in the election.

That is politics. You build allegiances to get what you want.

It is exactly the support network that Deputy St Pier was trying to build through the Guernsey Partnership of Independents but failed to get enough names into the top 38.

Deputy Ferbrache appears to have promised much to many people. What we will see now is a true test of his leadership skills with them in place.

He was steady at the States’ Trading Supervisory Board and well-liked by execs behind the scenes, but delivered nothing more than business as usual – he has pledged to shake things up and that requires different skills.

The presidential elections were at times jaw-dropping. That the election of Deputy Neil Inder as Economic Development president first up over the experience of Deputy Charles Parkinson turned into only the third most astonishing vote says a lot.

In the last few terms there have been people elected to head up committees that you may not be convinced about, but you could make an argument for the logic being shown.

Not so in 2020.

Deputy Al Brouard should not be in charge of Health & Social Care – he did not want the job. There has never been a more underwhelming speech. He sounded like a condemned man.

Not only was he not across the brief, he did not want to take all the responsibility if things started going wrong.

You have to feel sympathetic because he has been let down by his colleagues, both old and new, who were too gutless to take on what will be the hardest job this term.

Given the chance to step up to the plate, only Deputy David De Lisle was brave enough but had never shown the background to challenge.

That no credible candidate was put forward is a failure of leadership from the new P&R. It has exposed the health service in the middle of a global pandemic and a huge transformation programme. Initially Deputy Brouard could not even attract enough names to fill seats on the board to serve with him. Everyone should be dismayed.

Joining the HSC saga on primetime was the States’ Assembly and Constitution decision, which shows again that it does not matter what someone has done, just with whom they align themselves. The worst trait from the last administration has simply been amplified.

Deputy Carl Meerveld, who won easily against Deputy Lyndon Trott, ran the most negative campaign of anyone in the general election.

He attacks other members with glee, he weaponised the code of conduct process to try and settle scores and he was exposed for running a secret guerilla marketing campaign last term and appears to have learnt little from that.

Sacc is not a major committee, but it does uphold the standards to which all States members should aspire.

A lot of this feels like a revenge mission, but no one will admit to that, not in the glow of an election where you want to convince the electorate that you are building a broad consensus of the talents around you and that this is the change that was demanded.

To take this sorry state of affairs from a mere shambles to something much much worse was the sidelining of poll-topper Deputy St Pier.

He was endorsed by almost 14,000 people, has held the Treasury and Policy & Resources presidencies, and yet this States, high on election success, and with old scores to settle, cast him to the wilderness.

This was not decision-making based on someone’s ability or skills, or even their political beliefs. Deputy St Pier has much in common with those of the right of Guernsey’s States, just listen to his vision for States Trading Assets to know that.

Every States deserves a chance to show its colours, to act and perform before we cast the final judgement.

Its opening acts, especially those of the key players, have exposed it very early on.

There are high expectations from those that have always thought the island would be run better under Deputy Ferbrache, that there would be no tax rises, all of society would be more prosperous, an axe taken to ‘middle management’ in the States, a longer runway would usher in a new dawn of prosperity.

Having moved so decisively and divisively in the opening weeks, he and his acolytes now have a responsibility to stand firm, deliver and prove it is more than just populist sound bites.

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