Scrambling for seats and quarry questions

Before States members return to the debating chamber this week, Richard Graham reflects on the highs and lows of the last meeting need for the seating plan to reflect party or group membership.

E&I president Lindsay De Sausmarez pictured at Les Vardes Quarry. (Picture by Andrew Le Poidevin)
E&I president Lindsay De Sausmarez pictured at Les Vardes Quarry. (Picture by Andrew Le Poidevin)

WHEN reflecting on the most recent States meeting, it would be easy to lampoon the unedifying scramble for seats in the Assembly which followed the presiding officer’s ruling that the demise of the non-party known as the Guernsey Partnership of Independents meant that there was no longer a

In its place, there would forthwith be free seating in the well of the debating chamber. The outcome was predictable, even inevitable, and I for one am not going to criticise those members who reacted in the way most human beings would react when faced each day with a seating arrangement based on the stress-inducing principle of first come, first served. Some arrived early to bag a favoured seat for themselves, left their papers and laptops in their new place while they took a comfort break only to find on their return that their possessions had been moved. Others reserved one or more seats for colleagues who couldn’t be bothered to arrive early enough to keep a seat for themselves. Words were exchanged, some of them heated and indignant.

My mind drifted to images of British and German holidaymakers fighting World War III over possession of the best poolside loungers in Benidorm. In my view, the reaction of our worthy deputies was more deserving of sympathy than leg-pulling.

My support for them as a former member of the Assembly rests on a number of grounds. After nearly a year in office, members will have become used to what they would regard as their own, reserved seat. They would have developed a sense of belonging to one familiar place and would instinctively home in on it. When on their feet during debate, they would have learned where to locate each member on those many occasions when they need to direct their remarks or exchange looks with appropriate colleagues. In my view, they do not deserve the indignity of having to find a seat for themselves each morning. The system should be aimed at making their working life easier rather than more stressful.

An unintended consequence has been to accentuate the different status of those seated on the top bench and those in the well of the court. It is acceptable that the presidents of the senior committees and others with high responsibility should be seated prominently up there, but if the principle of ‘first come, first served’ is good enough for those in the well of the chamber, it should apply equally to those for whom the top bench is reserved. In that way we could watch the fun as presidents compete each morning to be close to the Bailiff’s left ear or jostle to gain privileged access to the bag of royal peppermints in His Excellency’s right pocket.

In my view the Assembly should not consist of the privileged and the non-privileged – each member’s voice and vote are as valuable as the next member’s and all deputies should enjoy equal respect in the Assembly. Let’s hope that it won’t be long before the privileged few on the top bench can no longer condescend to look down on the undignified spectacle of the lower order fighting over seats. Shades of Marie Antoinette and letting them eat cake, methinks.

To quarry or not to quarry? That was the tricky question facing members once they had found a seat for themselves. Before that there was some debate about the last general election, but that was pretty boring stuff. It was bound to be tedious because all members were convinced that the election had been a spiffing success – after all, it had enabled each and every one of them to be elected, so what was not to like about that? Deputies De Sausmarez, Dudley-Owen and Roffey went through the motions of lamenting the departure of parish and district representation and pointing to the drawbacks of island-wide voting, but we sensed that even they accepted that any States members, present or future, who are elected by the new system will never vote in sufficient numbers to change it.

It was interesting that many members considered it a matter for euphoric self-congratulation that Guernsey had actually managed to conduct a general election that went relatively smoothly. Most democratic jurisdictions, including ours, have been doing that every four years or so for more than 100 years without any fuss and would consider it a national disgrace if they failed to do so. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to judge the success or otherwise of a general election by the quality of the government it produces, and the jury will have another four years to consider its verdict on that.

Oh, I nearly forgot. Deputy Queripel took the opportunity to announce that he would not be standing at the next general election. Howls of protest reached me across the airwaves. I pictured earnest faces of members pleading that he might change his mind, but it soon became clear that I had got that wrong. The protests were that he had promised the same thing in the last States term and didn’t carry it out.

‘Aha, but this time I mean it,’ he assured them. So, last time he said it but didn’t mean it. I’m glad we cleared that one up.

The Assembly was at its best in the debate over the future of the quarrying industry. At issue was the balance between on the one hand using an important strategic asset for the benefit of the economy and on the other the preservation of an attractive part of the natural environment. The E&I policy letter did full justice to the matter and reflected how finely balanced were the two conflicting options. The debate also benefited from the minority report presented by Deputy Haskins. It was a thorough piece of work delivered to the Assembly with laudable skill.

With few exceptions – just one, come to think of it – members responded in a good spirit and with well-argued opinions. The exception – perhaps inevitably – was Deputy Inder, whose better nature struggles to emerge whenever an E&I initiative is being debated. According to him, dumping our inert waste at Longue Hougue was now going to cost the States £100m., many times the E&I estimate. Of course, he is himself an expert at underestimating costs. Who can forget his promise to maintain the eastern section of the L’Ancresse anti-tank wall for 10 years for a mere £200k, only for us to discover that it will cost taxpayers at least 10 times as much?

After a debate that did credit to the Assembly, only nine members voted to consign our quarrying industry to history. No doubt they were guided by the first law of holes. You know, the one that goes ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging’.

I hope I am not being cynical in wondering how many of the nine were simply parading their green credentials safe in the knowledge that they would lose the vote and therefore escape responsibility for the serious consequences had they won.

In these seemingly straightforward debates, I always look for the less obvious subtexts that lie beneath them.

The first is that Deputy Haskins would do well to reflect on the magnanimous reaction of the E&I president and members when, as a fellow member of the committee, he decided to openly challenge their policy letter. He should then contrast it with the abominable treatment he and his ESC colleagues handed out to Deputy Cameron when he dared to oppose that committee’s proposed model for secondary education. E&I welcomed Deputy Haskins’ challenge as helpful and in the spirit of true democracy, whereas he and the other ESC members treated Deputy Cameron with petty, vengeful spite.

Between them, E&I and ESC could not have provided us with a more vivid contrast of how our principal committees go about their business. The one is open, encourages its members to have views of their own and welcomes challenge; the other is secretive, addicted to Orwellian control and ruthlessly intolerant of dissent. I wonder in which committee Deputy Haskins feels most comfortable.

My second thought is that the strongest opposition to quarrying in part of the Chouet headland on environmental grounds was expressed most persuasively not only by Deputy Haskins but also by his ESC president. They both deplored the loss of a valuable, green space and the permanent damage it would inflict on the environment. That being the case, we can safely dismiss the ugly rumour that The Guernsey Institute’s sole grass field and recreation space will be turned into a car park when the Sixth Form Centre moves to Les Ozouets. The thought that yet another precious, green space would be concreted over by the ESC committee was of concern to true environmentalists who can now breathe a sigh of relief – presumably.

By the way, members finally got round to debating taxation but they ran out of time, so I’ll write about that when the talking stops later this month.

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