Season’s bleatings

A talking house and a House full of talkers – with some tuning in from who knows where. Our columnist offers his thoughts on last week’s ‘hybrid’ States meeting

IF IN a year or two you find yourself walking on the cliffs at Icart, you might hear a voice call out ‘Hi there, fancy a chat?’ If you look around you and can’t see anybody, try not to look surprised. Just act normally. It’s probably that new house calling you.

I read in a recent edition of the Guernsey Press that someone plans to build a house at Icart that will be ‘deeply conscious of its surroundings’ and will ‘look to construct a dialogue with its exposed, cliff-top position’.

As I read it, I thought to myself – crikey, a house that can think for itself and carry on an intelligent conversation with those around it – there are Statesmembers who can’t do that.

This being the season of goodwill, I wish this house a healthy and fulfilling life as it grows up there at Icart, thinking deep thoughts and chatting away to anyone who cares to listen, much as I wish it to members of the States Assembly who will be doing the same thing in the coming year. That said, I dislike the ghastly ‘planning speak’ that pervades the entire narrative of this planning application. In recognition of its cruel mangling of the English language and its contribution to the lexicon of vacuous jargon, I declare it the winner of my annual ‘Pretentiousness of the Year Award’. Mind you, it was run pretty close by some of the stuff offered up this past year in the States Assembly, particularly when education was the subject. Is anyone taken in by such drivel? Apparently they are. Take my word for it, we will get much more of the same gobbledygook in the coming year.

The old political year, as represented by the final States meeting of 2021, faded quietly away. Well it almost did, but then deputies Inder and Mahoney had other ideas. There wasn’t much on the agenda to stir the blood. Members needed first to agree to the meeting being conducted in hybrid form, thus enabling them to attend either in the debating chamber, or at home where the camera would show them smartly dressed for business with a carefully chosen stack of impressive, scholarly works on the bookshelves behind them. As for what they might be wearing below the camera line, I am conscious that some readers may be a bit squeamish, so let’s leave that to the imagination. There was only one voice against hybrid meetings, that of Deputy Taylor. He doesn’t like them.

I suspect that, like me, he thinks their introduction during a pandemic could be the thin end of the wedge and lead to them becoming normal in post-pandemic times. If that is indeed what he fears, then he may reasonably point to Policy & Resources as the culprit, that committee having aroused suspicions when it unsuccessfully proposed that hybrid meetings should continue permanently.

Whatever our views, we ought to commend Deputy Taylor for being his own man. Democracy is well served by its lone voices. I also liked the fact that he didn’t waste the Assembly’s time by requesting a self-indulgent recorded vote – his lone cry of ‘contre’ after the loud bleat of ‘pour’ from the rest of the flock was more eloquent than a mention in Hansard.

For those following the meeting on the radio, the results of the hybrid format were mixed. We could hear Deputy Soulsby’s statement updating members on the Government Work Plan. Her predictable and entirely legitimate mission was to present P&R’s upbeat, self-congratulatory account of progress, a mission which she duly accomplished. There was no mention that government spending was set to rise well above the level of inflation for the second year running since the new States took office. Strange eh? The update was variously challenged or endorsed by States members in an extended and largely good-tempered question-and-answer session.

Deputy Dyke questioned the wisdom of effectively committing the civil service to working from home on a permanent basis by providing only enough office space for half of them. Where was the evidence that this would not be inefficient? The only evidence that P&R deputies Soulsby and Mahoney chose to adduce was that committees and their civil servants had been consulted and were enthusiastic about working from home. I bet they were. I ask readers, what answer would you expect to get if you asked civil servants which would they prefer – to work unsupervised at home, or endure the daily rush-hour commute and then scramble for a parking spot at Frossard House just so they can rub shoulders there with a bunch of politicians who keep telling the public that there are too many of them, that they are an unnecessary drain on the taxpayer and that anyway, workers in the private sector could do their jobs better than they can?

I don’t know if Deputy Dyke was satisfied with the reply to his question. I wasn’t. Where is the evidence after such a brief period of working from home?

It shouldn’t be all about what is convenient for politicians and those who deliver customer-facing services; what about the customers? Who has asked them?

The Health & Social Care president’s update tested the determination of the radio listener. We couldn’t hear Deputy Brouard’s statement or his replies to subsequent questions. Despite his membership of the Civil Contingencies Authority, he failed to socially distance himself from his microphone throughout this session.

I don’t know what he was doing to it, and it’s probably best not to speculate, but whatever it was, the microphone plainly didn’t enjoy it and protested noisily. For the radio listener, it was an excruciating experience, and for all I know, the microphone felt the same.

I value the format of these routine updates followed by questions from the floor, but it could be improved. Even after 14 months in office, some questioners and some presidents have not yet learned how to pose or answer a question within the time allowed. In my view, a question that cannot be posed within 60 seconds is not a question but a speech, while an answer that cannot be given within 90 seconds is not an answer but a waffle. The Bailiff seemed to agree and gave the offenders the sort of ticking off you would give the pet Labrador for scoffing the Sunday joint.

Microphone problems also afflicted those deputies attending remotely. Deputy De Lisle seemed to be speaking from outer space, a suspicion which some of us have harboured for many a year, while Deputy Meerveld sounded as if he was snorkelling somewhere off the Cobo reefs. Perhaps he was; you never know with this working-from-home malarkey.

We were briefly entertained when the Development & Planning Authority had a little ‘domestic’ in public. Its vice-president – yes, Deputy Taylor again – urged members to reject a key proposition in a policy letter that the authority’s president was rather keen on. She wasn’t pleased and let us know it. The next DPA meeting should be fun.

They used to say that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had only to enter a room to darken it. A Guernsey equivalent is Deputy Inder, who has only to open his mouth to infect the debating chamber with a bleak, dystopian view of the universe. Which is what he did just as the meeting was drawing to its benign end. The target for his malevolence this time was the chairman of Guernsey Post, whose impressive record as a former journalist and editor of this newspaper was a source of irritation to Deputy Inder, who would give his eye teeth for an impressive record in any capacity.

Deputy Neil Inder complained of what he saw as ‘jobs for the boys’ on the boards of States trading entities. (Picture by Peter Frankland, 30157080)

Deputy Mahoney had earlier been in similar snide mode. Deploying his trademark sneer, he had sought to denigrate the credentials of a nominee for membership of the Guernsey Post board. ‘I can’t imagine what he’s adding to the board,’ was his dismissive comment. Ironically, that was precisely the view some of us hold of Deputy Mahoney’s membership of P&R.

At the last general election some 70% of the voters didn't vote for him to be a deputy, let alone being elevated to a political position for which he has no obvious, relevant experience, and for which any evidence of his aptitude has so far been conspicuous by its absence – in my view.

It is cowardly for deputies to abuse the privileged platform provided to them by the States of Deliberation by seeking to undermine the reputation of named individuals who are unable to respond themselves. The comments of these two deputies said more about themselves than about the directors whom they disparaged as mere beneficiaries of ‘jobs for the boys’.

As it happens, I know both directors – take it from me, neither of the two deputies could hold a candle to them.

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