Delaying democracy

The idea of extending a government’s term of office would usually be unthinkable to Peter Roffey, but there are more pressing matters at hand right now than an election – such as the impossible balancing act between protecting lives and protecting livelihoods

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TWO subjects today. The delayed election and the lockdown.

Starting with the election.

Is it right to delay? Of course it is. If we had stuck to the original date the campaign would have been under way in a few weeks’ time. Clearly that would have been quite impossible.

How long should it be delayed by? At the time of writing the States hasn’t made a final decision but is leaning towards a one-year deferral having passed the Le Tocq amendment. I think that is right and will vote that way myself.

The main alternative on offer was an October election. I really hope we are back to something like normality by then but for an election to take place normality needs to return at least two or three months earlier.

The civil servants organising the general election need to be back on the day job after being released from special Covid-19 duties. The new electoral roll needs to be finalised. Candidates need to be focusing on their manifestos and getting their nominations organised. Parochial officials need to be focusing on their important roles in the election. The electorate need to be happy to engage with wannabe deputies and not avoiding them for fear of catching the virus. That fear will persist well after the peak has passed.

So really the question for an October election is not ‘will the crisis be over by then?’ but rather ‘will the crisis be over by July?’ It’s possible but very unlikely and rather than faffing around setting date after date, more in hope than expectation, it’s far cleaner to go for a longer delay at the outset so everyone can focus on the vital job at hand.

Another possibility would have been a winter election but it’s hard enough work getting good turnouts for Guernsey elections without holding them in the winter months when people have to battle the elements to get to the polls. So all the logic pointed to spring 2021.

Of course it’s an important principle of democracy that elected governments should not ordinarily be able to extend their own terms of office. There lies totalitarianism. Normally I would be manning the barricades in opposition but these are extraordinary circumstances and I think everyone but the saddest of conspiracy theorists can see the difference between Gavin St Pier and Vladimir Putin.

I suppose the two questions are:

l How differently would the electorate have voted in 2016 if they had been electing deputies for a five-year term instead of a four-year term? Not very differently I suspect.

l Does the extension favour the current crop of deputies? No. In fact pressing on with a June 2020 election would have handed a huge advantage to the incumbents.

If the States does vote for an extra year of office it will pose questions for those deputies who intended to step down this June. We can’t really make them stay if they have other plans and the States could, at a pinch, run a few members light over the coming months.

By the time you read this we will know the decision on the election date but I certainly make no apology for voting the way I did. I know it was in Guernsey’s best interest.

Moving on to the so-called ‘lockdown’. Guernsey has been described as being in lockdown for the last four weeks but that’s not quite true.

Yes, we have had restrictions on our movements to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus but the Americanism ‘lockdown’ implies no one being able to leave home at all. Such drastic measures are usually only applied when the police are carrying out street searches for suspected terrorists or mass murderers and want everybody else off the streets and out of their way. In comparison, what Guernsey has experienced has been very mild.

I say that but it has caused economic devastation, thrown many people out of employment for the duration, and will inevitably lead to some business failures. So to that extent the restrictions have been drastic. In fact far more so than a couple of days locked in at home while the cops hunt down some bad guys. But in terms of the impact on people’s movements it’s been far from lockdown.

Firstly, all of us have been able to leave home for up to two hours a day to buy essentials or to take exercise. Thousands have been out walking, jogging and cycling and giving every sign of really enjoying it. The fact that the crisis has coincided with spring is a blessing.

I know the UK authorities fear fine weather will tempt people to ignore the restrictions but I think the opposite is true. A couple of hours of healthy exercise in the spring sunshine makes it far easier to abide the rest of the day spent at home. I suppose that’s easy for me to say having a garden and not living in a flat or a bedsit.

Then there are thousands of islanders who are away from home not just for a couple of hours a day but for full-time work. Not only our superb healthcare workers but all the others who are ensuring the island keeps ticking. The teachers looking after key workers’ children. The social care workers, and in particular those in residential and nursing homes, who really are at the forefront of this crisis. All the staff in food shops, the posties, sewage cart drivers, bin men, delivery drivers and so on.

We are hugely grateful to them all but their activities show that Guernsey is at most in a partial lockdown. We still need it to end, as soon as it is safe to do so though, for many reasons.

Firstly, there’s the economic ruin which shutting business for an extended period will create. A couple of months’ forced closure will cause a few firms to fail. Six months would be carnage.

Secondly, there is the impact on those with frail mental health of being forced to stay at home for 22 hours a day. (We should be supporting the charity Mind at this time.)

Thirdly, there is the well documented impact on the prevalence of one of Guernsey’s biggest social problems – domestic violence. (We should be supporting the charity Safer at this time.)

Fourthly, as the weeks roll on, while I am sure the Guernsey community will stay disciplined and follow the rules for the sake of the wider community, widespread ‘cabin fever’ will definitely be setting in.

Fifthly, and far more personally, because I took a rash oath when the lockdown measures were first announced. I probably shouldn’t tell you this but I have a real weakness for red wine. Preferably French wine because it’s head, shoulders and torso above wine from other countries. Frankly when I heard that we were all going to be confined to our homes for 22 hours a day I was worried I might slip into over-imbibing. To make sure I didn’t I swore to go dry for the duration of the lockdown. So you can imagine how I blanch when some expert commentators suggest it might go on for months.

Being serious, at some stage a huge decision is going to be needed over when to lift the general lockdown for the sake of the economy while continuing to shield the most vulnerable islanders. Sadly it could involve an impossible balancing act between protecting lives and ensuring business survival.

Who should take such mega-decisions – of which there will be many in the weeks ahead? In my view neither the CCA nor the full States Assembly is the right body. More on that subject in my next column.

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