A warning from Easter Island

PERMIT me to begin with an apology. This week’s offering is more than usually sombre and since I’m keen to avoid being labelled a doomster or gloomster, I have to say in my defence that it’s all Sark’s fault. And that chap Camp too. Horace, isn’t it?

Easter Island. (Picture by MarcvanKessel.com/Shutterstock)
Easter Island. (Picture by MarcvanKessel.com/Shutterstock)

The thing is, we can all see the difficulties our tiny neighbour eight miles away is in. And that’s down to people, particularly those in Chief Pleas or influencing it, and their inability to plan and execute a coherent path for the future.

In turn, that’s triggered population decline, plummeting school rolls, business closure and what the uber-critical Sark News deems to be dogmatically-driven economic cleansing.

And despite the close and concerned interest – not to say resources – of the Ministry of Justice, the office of the Lt-Governor here in Guernsey and the Seigneur in Sark, no one seems much able to slow the handcart’s journey to Hades, let alone turn its path.

All of which suggests that there’s a critical minimum size below which independent, self-governing islands cannot realistically exist. To see what I mean, imagine Alderney if Guernsey no longer provided its public services or kept its lifeline air links aloft. Not a pretty picture.

If this view is correct – and as an example, the slightly smaller Japanese island of Osakikamijima has seen its population decline from 25,000 to around 7,800, while those aged 65 or older are nearly half of that – what is that crucial minimum size?

Guernsey is now well poised to answer that as it drifts into becoming a living case study.

Many of us were brought up on the understanding (now challenged) that the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island were so intent on their personal projects that they underestimated the extent of available resources and trashed their civilisation.

True or not, it’s a cautionary tale from 8,300 miles away for this island, whose only real resource is money, and other people’s at that. Without non-local business, average earnings and GDP would not be significantly ahead of the UK’s and we would not have the generally gold-plated public services we have now.

Yet, as I mentioned the other week, this Assembly’s ambitions, Rapa Nui-like, have already exceeded the current tax generating capacity of its economy and the full extent of that will emerge in January when the Fiscal Policy Framework is debated.

But the pursuit of pet projects is worse than generally recognised. Those responsible in the States itself for HR and payroll are genuinely horrified at the cost implications of the looming disability legislation.

Separately, policy strategists are appalled that decoupling diagnosed disability from the inclusion policy was approved in the States by amendment and therefore was not subject to public consultation.

So this is government on a whim, yet the Assembly thrives on that. Many now see nothing wrong with setting their own pay or establishing public service as a full-time remunerated position.

This ‘me first’ approach was most evident in the proxy vote debate, which means parents of infants can skip a debate yet still get a say in the outcome. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of parental rights and support for them, but this decision is utter guff.

Firstly, it’s discriminatory (aren’t we supposed to have policies on that?) because why exclude parents with sick children or States members with broken limbs? Or fog-bound Alderney States representatives?

Secondly, it’s an ill-considered slippery slope. For the year to end October 2018, I’m told there were 107 recorded votes, yet only 16 members were present for all of them. Some 13 missed between one and nine, seven weren’t there for 10-20 votes, three were absent for 21-30 votes while one member topped the bill by skipping a whopping 42 votes out of the 107.

So if 24 members were unable to be present in this snapshot of mine, why shouldn’t they have proxy votes extended to them just as much as nursing parents?

What’s more disturbing, however, is the underlying thought process. My vote is so important it cannot be denied to the Assembly. No, I do not need to listen to the debate or counter arguments because my mind is made up and I Am Right.

Which neatly brings me to Horace Camp and his column last week. The bit where he declared: ‘We need a strong and stable States… which realises that the economy underpins our independence, pays for our social services and provides opportunities for our children.’

Yet when was the last time the States debated the economy, job creation and the need for fiscal prudence? Decided that policies had to be essential, not merely desirable? Or noted that the increase in population figures, welcome though it was, was due largely to increasing numbers of older islanders?

Those employed in finance have reduced over the years, while working for the States is firmly entrenched as the second biggest employment area: 17% to finance’s 19%. At the same time, the number of employers here has declined in all but three of the last 17 quarters.

Post-war prosperity and the fun of doing stuff has rather blinded many – and I don’t just mean States members – to the brutal reality that Guernsey has a future only if business considers it an attractive and economic place from which to operate.

So as Horace Camp reminds us, we need people in the States who do things because they absolutely have to be done, not because it represents a personal crusade.

Like it or not, managing policy expectations is an Easter Island resource issue that can’t be ignored. Or, rather, doing so invites similar disaster. Which is why I’d rather my minimum size theory about functioning small-scale island communities wasn’t put to the test just yet.

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