A game of two halves?
Richard Graham shares his thoughts on last week’s States meeting.
LAST week’s States meeting was the first of the second half of the current political term. Only two years and three months to go, but long enough for some States members to up their game, for others to improve their manners and their dress standards in the Assembly and for Deputy Inder finally to attend an anger management course (it’s never too late, sir).
Regrettably, there’s still ample time for yet more of our green fields to be lost to development. With what I call the Philistine Tendency firmly entrenched in the Policy and Resources Committee and in the Development and Planning Authority, no Guernsey green field can feel safe between now and the next election.
I wonder if the time will be used to propose the means-testing of our old age pensions, as has been mooted. Across the Bay of Granville we’ve already seen the mayhem caused when the gods dare to meddle with these pensions. Picture the scene in Market Square: thousands gathered, everywhere you look a forest of ribbons (what colour this time?) hundreds of flags being waved – by far the largest by Deputy Meerveld (yes, him again) – and cries of ‘A la lanterne’.
There is also enough time for some deputies to get up to electoral mischief. Now that the 2025 general election is within view, I predict we will see more requetes/amendments and sursis that are designed to catch the eye of the electorate. These initiatives will run the whole gamut of gestures from little more than coy, come-on winks, to full-blown jumping up and down with flags along the Quay by some of the Assembly’s most look-at-me members.
A few deputies might be prompted to improve their attentiveness now that they know former Deputy Mary Lowe is on their trail. She observes States meetings from the public gallery and has compiled a dossier that records every time each member has left the Assembly during debates and the length of their absence. Some members have been left quivering in fear that she might publish it. Others have demanded that she should be stopped. The dossier is indeed illuminating. I won’t name and shame, but I will point out that during 45 hours of observed debate in September and October last year, one member was recorded as leaving the chamber 33 times and being absent for a total of nearly seven hours (that’s an average of 12 minutes per cigarette) while another left only 15 times but remained absent for more than 11 hours.
I will, however, name those whose bladders and stamina were of a size worthy of high commendation. Deputies Fairclough, Prow and Vermeulen managed to sit through all eight days of debate without once leaving the chamber. Not far behind were deputies De Sausmarez (once for 10 minutes) and Ferbrache (once for only two minutes). Crikey, that was a quick one, Peter! Very impressive.
I note that in England the government is banning the sale of laughing gas for personal consumption. Desperate chucklers here in Guernsey needn’t panic. They don’t need the stuff. So many of our deputies are born comedians that we have more than enough to chuckle over without filling our lungs with nitrous oxide. The jokes are delivered both inside and outside the Assembly and the funniest are usually those that weren’t intended.
The Fibgate fiasco at the D&PA has been worth a smile or two, but there’s also been a serious side to the Authority’s identity crisis. It has demonstrated that would-be whistle-blowers here are treated much the same as we have seen elsewhere – namely, the governing establishment dumps on them heavily.
On a less serious note, recent weeks have seen the ESC president offering us two splendid rib-ticklers. Who can forget her assurance, given with a straight face, that the standard of education delivered by her committee in Guernsey is superior to that provided by the Taliban in Afghanistan? My Pashtu is not what it once was, but I think a Taliban spokesman not only challenged her analysis but also advised her what she could do with it. Her claim was, of course, valid. After all, the Taliban version of education includes the death penalty for anyone caught teaching girls and women anything except their subjugation to men, so we should indeed be grateful to our ESC committee for doing better than that.
Only two weeks ago, the ESC president offered some of our high school students another comment which in terms of giggle value was a real belter. She shared with students her opinion that since their future employers would be looking for evidence of their resilience and adaptability, what better evidence could there be of those qualities than to survive having their A-level studies interrupted half-way through by moving them from a purpose-built sixth form centre at Les Varendes to an unfit-for-purpose building at La Mare de Carteret? Laugh, the students nearly cried. As one student said to their mother, ‘For goodness sake, Mum, wasn’t it enough that our studies were disrupted by two Covid-19 lockdowns? How much more resilience and adaptability do we have to demonstrate?’
There were times during last week’s States meeting when, like these students, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Or just get indignant. Or go and mow the lawn. Deputy Mahoney offered a classic case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. It was so blatant that it beggared belief. One moment he was bemoaning that at a time when our government faces huge strategic problems, the Assembly was wasting valuable time debating powers to make people tidy up their gardens.
So far, so correct. But, next moment, without even a hint that he understood he was applying double standards, he took the stage as a requerant in debating a requete designed to scare the pants off us with absurd, alarmist claims that our drinking water is poisoning us all. As I listened, I felt sympathy for our chief minister who, earlier in the meeting, had pleaded with members to focus all their energy and talents on what the States needs to do rather than wants to do, on the essentials rather than on self-indulgent trivia. And yet, despite his admirable rallying call, here were two key members of his P&R committee (Deputies Mahoney and Helyar) and two presidents of principal States committees (Home Affairs and Education, Sport & Culture) strutting their stuff and inflicting on the Assembly a requete so futile and mind-numbingly stupid that two of them finished up not even voting for it. Only seven deputies did. Yes, it really is true – after a debate lasting the best part of an afternoon and the next morning, these four members of the chief minister’s leadership team had persuaded just two non-requerants to vote for their requete.
The chief minister would have been justified in concluding that not only had his colleagues shown a poor sense of government priorities, they had also been stunningly inept at arguing their case in the Assembly. That’s what I concluded, but all four were his choice for high office, not mine.
I leave you with a few random recollections of the meeting that will stay with me until the next batch presents itself.
One Deputy Gollop question demonstrated just how long he has been immersed in politics. He referred to extending the States free childcare policy ‘as part of human productivity workforce gains’. How do they write this stuff?
Deputy Dyke, the Assembly’s strongest if not most articulate advocate of States non-intervention in the free market, found himself arguing for States intervention in the private property market through the medium of ‘innovative financing’. That’s Assembly speak for bunging taxpayers’ cash at private developers. I do give him credit for acknowledging that this proposal sounded odd coming from him. He was right – it did.
In his update statement, the chief minister urged all committees to look for and use expertise available from those in the community who could do what government doesn’t do well or doesn’t need to do. He was right to do so. I wonder if he was thinking of the dedicated, expert service provided by the Dyslexia Day Centre which the States has just decided to abandon?
‘That’s what they all say.’ So said an amused Deputy Bailiff during a guest appearance as presiding officer. She was referring to yet another member beginning their speech with the promise ‘I will be brief’. She could have added that the same applies to that other much-abused phrase ‘I wasn’t going to speak but...’ often uttered before reading from a prepared speech.
I congratulate Deputy Queripel on leading a successful (just) amendment to a D&PA policy letter. He began his case as follows: ‘Members will probably get fed up with the sound of my voice over the next few days.’ He was right. They did.