More ‘decisive indecision’

AFTER all the hype that preceded it, the resumed debate over the tax review fizzled out tamely.

For much of the debate, a beleaguered P&R manned the parapets of Fort GST, desperately fending off attacks from all sides, including those mounted by some treacherous defectors who had seen which way the wind was blowing and had scarpered down an escape tunnel signposted ‘This way if you promised the electorate not to increase taxation’.

P&R members did their very best. They deployed their trusty trebuchet, launching massive warnings about the destruction of Guernsey’s finances if they were defeated. Their archers fired volley after volley of sharp-pointed accusations of Luddism. They poured barrels of molten threats about national insolvency over deputies who were storming the stockade’s walls. All to no avail. Still the plucky enemy kept coming. Then they tried the soft approach, showering their opponents with a seductively scented confetti of mitigating measures that would make all the peasants better off with GST. But the non-taxers were not to be persuaded. At two minutes to midday, General Ferbrache and Colonel Helyar marched out of the fort’s gates beneath a white flag, waving a piece of paper titled Amendment 1.

Rather than characterise this as a surrender, it would be kinder and more accurate to report that P&R effectively sued for peace. People of my generation used to cry ‘fainites’ with crossed fingers. You don’t hear the term these days. Let’s say a truce was declared. It was agreed that P&R would report back to the States by July next year so that the Assembly and the public would be better informed. That probably means a debate in early September.

Meanwhile, much time and energy would be devoted to further research – especially looking at the scope for generating more revenue from businesses – and to a better engagement with the wider community. In other words, the current States members found themselves deferring necessary and long-overdue action in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons as their reviled predecessors had done.

I keep reminding myself that the term ‘kicking the can down the road’ is banned by the dominant majority of members unless it’s applied to the record of their simply awful predecessors. They don’t even admit to the lesser offence of hitting balls into the long grass or putting kettles onto the back burner. Instead, they slavishly spout the mantra that they are now simply making decisions not to make decisions, unlike previous States assemblies who kicked cans and hit balls either down the road or into the long grass as if there were no tomorrow.

I admit that as a marketing slogan ‘decisive indecision’ has a certain catchiness to it. It’s certainly original, but rather awkwardly it does run counter to two other slogans which, far from being banned, have acquired the status of being obligatory within the current regime, namely ‘action this day’ and ‘action not words’. I suppose they could claim that deciding not to decide is indeed an action of sorts, but even then, it’s taken them a whole year in office and a whole lot of words to decide not to decide.

There were frequent and loud cries of ‘mea culpa’ from P&R members and their supporters. They had failed adequately to explain their proposals for tax reform. I think they made far too much of this. In my view they had explained the issues well and no amount of further explanation will make the unpalatable palatable. I believe I heard Deputy Ferbrache himself warn that there are no easy options and no matter how much consultation might take place, the options will not get any easier. He was right to do so. The same citizens and deputies who still claim that States finances can be balanced simply by growing the economy and either reducing government services or providing them more efficiently will remain prisoners of their own fixed beliefs and election rhetoric however much they may be consulted over the coming months. They have been given more than enough evidence to have changed their minds during the year following the general election, so why expect them to do so in just under a year’s time?

On one matter, all deputies were as one. None of them wanted to increase taxation. Believe it or not, this had previously seemed to be in doubt because all members, taking their cue from Deputy Helyar, thought it necessary to explain that they supported the proposals only after being subjected to a campaign of unbearable torture by a gang calling themselves ‘Welcome to the Real World’. I believed them. Looking through the election manifestos of all the successful candidates (you’re right, I do need to get a life) I found only three of them mentioned their enthusiasm for increased taxes – deputies Aldwell (a new tax on internet purchases), Gollop (consumption taxes) and Dudley-Owen (on higher earners).

Deputy Susan Aldwell, right, and Deputy Andrew Taylor. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 30083616)

But if the Assembly was united by a reluctance to increase taxes, it was divided between those who in order to get elected had promised never to raise taxation and those who hadn’t. The electorate will know which were which.

On one matter we should be clear – claims that promises were made in ignorance of the true state of our economy and public finances are not credible. As P&R has itself recently confirmed, Guernsey is in better economic and fiscal health now than was publicly forecast during the election. So, no excuses accepted.

I wonder if I am alone in being bemused by one distinct characteristic of the current Assembly, namely that some members persist in unashamed boasting about their personal prowess while their more modest colleagues seem happy to indulge them when they do. Perhaps the most glaring and entertaining of many examples is the ongoing contest for bragging rights between deputies Taylor and Trott. You know the sort of thing, ‘My contribution to the Guernsey economy is greater than yours’. I suspect this one will run and run. The most topical example is provided by P&R and Deputy Parkinson in their rival claims to superior wisdom and knowledge in matters of business taxes and their effects on the economy. Listening in, I couldn’t dismiss from my mind an image of peacocks preening, clucking and strutting around in a contest for mating rights. I accept that the Assembly is inevitably an arena where political credibility has to be won, but I wonder whatever happened to modesty. It’s the grown-up version of ‘my dad’s bigger than yours’ that you hear in the junior school playground, but is it not just a tiny bit embarrassing in the States debating chamber? Apparently not.

I’m not saying who my money would be on, but I detect the dangers of ‘group think’ within P&R. Two House of Commons select committees have just reported that the British government’s mistakes in its response to Covid-19 were largely caused by the failure of anybody in authority to challenge what the scientists claimed to be ‘the science’. Everyone dutifully accepted and followed ‘the science’. But it was the wrong science. There is no such thing as ‘the science’, just differing and sometimes contradictory sciences. Since the same is true of economic theories, I must ask, who’s offering the challenge within P&R?

On the last day of the meeting, members agreed to recapitalise Aurigny. Alarmingly, deputies De Lisle and Gollop by their abstentions, and Deputy Queripel by his vote of ‘contre’, signalled that they were prepared to let Aurigny go under and cease operating. Of course, they did so safe in the knowledge that the positive votes of 36 colleagues would ensure that the dire consequences of a refusal to rescue the company would be avoided. It left me thinking that some protests are easier to make than others.

Two narratives ran through this debate. The first was expressed by many members, but most vehemently by Deputy Inder. They were outraged that the previous Aurigny management had resisted political involvement in how the company operated. They argued that as custodians of the public purse, they were entitled to a say in how the company was run. The term ‘double standards’ came to mind. After all, these were the self-same deputies who had swallowed the ESC line that whether or not the new model for secondary and post-16 education would work in practice was an operational matter of no concern to the ESC members, let alone to other States members. ‘Just cough up the taxpayers’ money and leave it to the professionals’ had been the cry.

The second narrative would have alarmed Aurigny’s new board. Deputy after deputy lined up to say how impressed they were by the new management team who, unlike their predecessors, deserved the trust and confidence of States members. So far so good. But a rather sinister note then crept in. Members were not so impressed and trustful that they no longer needed to hold the Aurigny board’s feet to the fire. Before long, we were treated to a competition for who would make things hottest for the wretched Aurigny board. Some deputies wanted to turn the heat up; others wanted to get the feet even closer to the fire. Some even wanted to roast some unmentionable parts of the board’s anatomy. I thought, crikey, we’ve elected a bunch of sadistic pyromaniacs.

If I were chairman of the Aurigny board, I would hold board meetings within easy range of the Airport Fire Service from now on.

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