Can-kicking and personality politics
Last week’s States meeting saw the tax review take centre stage, with members of the public gathering in protest against plans to introduce GST. Richard Graham looks back at what proved to be a divisive debate.
IF ANY readers are remotely interested to learn my views on GST, may I politely suggest that they’re leading a somewhat sad life to which knowledge of my views on this issue would not add one drop of happiness. However, I do offer an assessment of what the debate of the issue tells us about our elected representatives. And it tells us a lot.
States deputies addicted to can-kicking need a regular fix, and Deputies Meerveld and Blin duly provided one in the form of a sursis motive. This parliamentary opium is known to be highly effective when inhaled by those who enjoy that seductive ‘doing nothing’ feeling, but this latest consignment was quickly confiscated in a mass raid by 29 of the 40 members present. That left only three serious acts in town: P&R’s policy letter, the so-called ‘Fairer Alternative’ of the Soulsby/St Pier amendment, and the Parkinson/McKenna amendment with its emphasis on increasing income from corporate taxation.
I was reminded of Schroeder stairs, an optical illusion which is used as a classical example of how several people can look at the same thing and each see it differently. A two-dimensional drawing of a staircase is seen by some as stairs that lead downwards from left to right, by others as leading upwards from right to left.
So it was with the policy letter and the two principal amendments to it.
Deputy Helyar saw the policy letter as the embodiment of those who were prepared to put on their ‘big boys’ pants’. Leaving aside the not-entirely flattering image of Deputy Helyar wearing big boys’ pants, this typical example of P&R’s macho approach to politics presented an awkward challenge for female members. Most of them were among the two-thirds of members who thought the policy letter itself was just ‘pants’, whether big, small, for boys or girls. Or non-binary, of course.
Deputies Soulsby and St Pier saw their amendment as a responsible, well-costed and fair response to the chief minister’s plea for members to come up with workable alternatives to GST rather that simply saying no to it. Deputy Ferbrache saw it differently, describing it variously as irresponsible, unworkable and pure tokenism. By their vote, a clear majority of members seemed to agree with him.
Deputy Parkinson saw his and Deputy McKenna’s amendment as offering an intelligent way ahead, in contrast to P&R’s GST bludgeon. He suggested, rather indelicately, that it offered members a choice – either use their brains, or rely on whatever happens to lie within P&R’s big boys’ pants.
Sadly for him, only 10 other members saw the amendment that way, including Deputy McKenna who, somewhat curiously, chose not to speak in support of it. Come to that, I didn’t hear him speak at all during the three days of debate, nor do I think he contributed a single speech to any of the three budget debates held in this political term. Perhaps financial matters are not his strong suit, in which case, fair enough.
The debate had its moments. Irony of ironies, by far the most articulate, persuasive and passionate case for the P&R policy letter came not from any P&R member but from Deputy Roffey. Remember him? He’s the one that the P&R president once said he doesn’t trust.
Deputy Roffey was followed by Deputy Dyke. Oh dear. The contrast was painfully embarrassing. In between enough ums, ers, aahs and pregnant pauses to fill all those empty offices in Sir Charles Frossard House, Deputy Dyke managed to express his admiration for the P&R members who had produced a policy letter to which he was opposed, but he made a point of excluding from his praise Deputy Roffey, who had contributed the only parts of the package that gave it a remote chance of being acceptable.
Deputy Dyke also claimed to have identified countless opportunities for the States to make savings.
Deputy Inder intervened, the more effectively for doing so politely. He wanted to know why, after more than two years in office, Deputy Dyke had done nothing himself to tackle all the waste he sees? Good question.
Deputy Aldwell expressed her strong opposition to ‘G Haitch T’. I heard somebody whisper helpfully: ‘It’s GST, not GHT’. It made no difference to Deputy Aldwell – whatever it was, she was against it. She also warned against cutting Home Affairs’ budget. Any reduction, however small, would be a calamity. Deputy Vermeulen, vice-president of Home Affairs, expressed the opposite view. The committee had identified oodles of opportunities to save money and there were still more to come. In the past, he had looked employees in the eye and told them he would have to let them go, and he was prepared to do so again. Over the airways I could hear the steam rising from Deputy Prow’s ears as his vice-president went seriously off-message. Meanwhile, I guess there are police officers, firefighters, prison officers and probation officers who will not be keen to catch Deputy Vermeulen’s eye.
Deputy Vermeulen was not done yet. He had a gripe. Deputy Kazantseva-Miller had mispronounced his name. I didn’t think she had, but he sounded genuinely distressed. I was left thinking that it’s a good job Deputy De Sausmarez isn’t so precious. There isn’t a single States deputy who has ever pronounced her name correctly. She just isn’t that bothered by it.
Oh, I almost forgot – this was the debate when deputies Taylor and Trott made up. Personally I thought Deputy Taylor’s peaceful overtures were a tad over the top, but we should not quibble when presented with good news.
Unusually, I end on a serious note – to be precise, with pots and black kettles, stones and glasshouses, with ‘Do as I say and not as I do’, with double standards and with hypocrisy. On second thoughts, with certain deputies having notoriously itchy fingers on their litigation trigger, best leave ‘hypocrisy’ out of it.
In a recent Guernsey Press column, Dr Sloan made the following observation when commenting on the tax review. I quote him: ‘... my criticisms are of policy, not personality. From my vantage point, Guernsey’s politics has an unpleasant tinge to it. I have no wish to be dragged into that.’ He was right, of course, and I could just as easily shrug my shoulders and wearily accept that the current cynical way of doing things is here to stay. But I won’t. It’s time to call it out.
I am prompted to do so by an incident during the afternoon of the third day of debate. Deputy Meerveld had just laid a late amendment. I make no comment about the amendment itself, other than to observe that it added to his well-earned status as the Lionel Messi of Guernsey can-kickers. I know it’s a team game, but he is simply outstanding.
In criticising his amendment, Deputy Kazantseva-Miller offered the view that it revealed that electioneering for the 2025 general election had already begun. I think she was unwise to do so. The point she sought to make was transparently obvious to many members anyway, so why make it at the cost of antagonising others? She would have done better to note Dr Sloan’s dictum – policy not personality.
What transpired was even more unedifying. Our chief minister, doubtless fatigued by now but fuelled by a full tank of self-righteous indignation, blew what was left of his frayed gasket. How dare Deputy Kazantseva-Miller impugn the integrity of a fellow deputy? Electioneering? His friend Deputy Meerveld? What an outrageous suggestion. He demanded that the Bailiff pour all sorts of retribution upon Deputy Kazantseva-Miller – and if the rules didn’t allow him to, then the rules should be changed.
I thought, crikey, was this the same Deputy Ferbrache who used his platform in a previous States meeting to declare that he didn’t trust Deputy Roffey? And surely it wasn’t the same Deputy Ferbrache who earlier had insisted that the authors of Amendment 4, Deputies Soulsby and St Pier, were motivated, not by the honourable wish to offer an alternative to P&R’s proposal, but by the cynical hope that ‘they can go into the next election saying we haven’t made a decision and we bashed those boys over GST’.
And was it the same Deputy Ferbrache who earlier had failed to object when earlier in the debate Deputy Dudley-Owen had insinuated that there was something dark and hidden behind the motives of those proposing the ‘Fairer Alternative’?
If those three examples didn’t amount to impugning the integrity of fellow deputies, then I don’t know what would.