Guernsey Press

OPINION: Echoes of 1984?

Making Deputy Andy Cameron an ‘unperson’, by excluding him from attending ESC meetings whenever secondary and post-16 education is being discussed, is nothing less than sinister, says Richard Graham

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I HAVE previously commented that it is not only from States meetings that we learn about the conduct of those we have elected to govern us. If the States is a theatre, its resident actors reveal much about themselves when off stage behind the closed curtain of the debating chamber. The long summer break between States meetings had barely begun when this point was confirmed. Let me explain.

‘A person who, having fallen out of favour with the Party, becomes “an unperson” and is completely ignored, as if he or she does not exist.’ Remind you of anyone in Guernsey? It should. This description of ‘unpersons’ in the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984 fits one of our States deputies too closely for comfort. Orwell saw the phenomenon of the ‘unperson’ coming, and by now we are accustomed to seeing it as we look beyond our shores to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to Xi Jinping’s China and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. But here in Guernsey? Surely not?

Sadly, almost unbelievably, yes. We now know that the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture has excluded Deputy Cameron, one of its members, from attending committee meetings whenever secondary and post-16 education is being discussed. He has, in effect, been declared an ‘unperson’ as far as ESC is concerned. His offence? He believes that the purpose-built Sixth Form Centre should remain at Les Varendes, where it was opened just 18 years ago. He not only believes it but argues the case for it within committee and States meetings. Such is the other ESC members’ lack of confidence in their plan to send the Sixth Form Centre on a break as Airbnb-style guests of La Mare de Carteret for a couple of years during its rather circuitous and expensive journey to its eventual destination at Les Ozouets, that their only answer to criticism of it is to close their ears and eyes to it.

I am not of course suggesting that the consequences for Deputy Cameron can be compared to what they would be as a dissident in Russia, China or North Korea, but within the context of Guernsey’s model of democracy, making him an ‘unperson’ is nothing less than sinister. And it felt no less sinister when we heard that the advice of the law officers is that Deputy Cameron’s exclusion from committee meetings is justified under Rule 49 of the States rules for committees on the grounds that he ‘has a direct or special interest in the business under consideration by the Committee’ (namely secondary and post-16 education). Not only can he not vote on it in committee, but he can’t even discuss it or witness the discussion. Leaving aside whether Deputy Cameron’s views are sound or not, the decision to exclude him is in my view an extraordinary and deeply disturbing interpretation of a rule that has previously been assumed to apply only to members who might expect to benefit personally and materially from the outcome of a discussion or vote. I cannot for the life of me see why keeping the Sixth Form Centre at Les Varendes is any more in Deputy Cameron’s direct or special interest than moving it to Les Ozouets is in the direct or special interest of his ESC colleagues.

What sort of committee would even think to ‘unperson’ a democratically elected colleague on such spurious grounds? I’ll tell you – a committee that is awash with paranoia and vindictiveness.

Did the chief minister demand that Deputy Soulsby, his then deputy and a strong, public opponent of GST, be excluded from P&R’s discussions of its preferred fiscal policy on the grounds that a defeat of the committee’s proposed introduction of GST was in her direct and special interest? No, he did not.

Did the president of the Committee for the Environment & Infrastructure invoke Rule 49 to exclude Deputy Haskins from committee meetings when, as E&I’s then vice-president, he spoke and voted against the committee’s proposal to open a new quarry at Chouet headland? No, she did not. Quite the opposite in fact. E&I went out of its way to give Deputy Haskins’ approach a fair and balanced inclusion in the committee’s media releases and policy letter, even to the point of including it as an alternative to the committee’s preferred solution. All this without any acrimony. I do hope that the embarrassing contrast between E&I’s respectful tolerance of Deputy Haskins’ dissenting views and the spiteful treatment of a committee colleague that he now endorses as ESC vice-president is not entirely lost on him.

It seems to me that Deputies Ferbrache and de Sausmarez simply showed themselves to be presidents of principal committees who welcome democratic challenge rather than seek to shut it down. They can do so because they have confidence in their policies and in their ability to defend and justify them when challenged. What’s more, they have shown respect for the democratic process by which the likes of Deputy Cameron have been elected, through universal suffrage, to serve in the States as deputies of the people and have then been further elected to serve as members of committees by a clear majority of colleagues who themselves were democratically elected to vote on committee membership on behalf of us all. Committees that disrespect that democratic process do so at their peril.

Two last thoughts. If there are things that ESC doesn’t want Deputy Cameron to know about its stuttering model for secondary and post-16 education, we can be sure that its members don’t want any States deputies and the rest of us to know about them either. All we will learn is what the communications apparatchiks at Frossard House deign to let us have via more of those heavily managed media releases that we have come to expect. It’s enough to make even charitable souls like me suspicious. Huge cost overruns? Yet more delay? Not enough qualified teachers to make it work? 80% of secondary teachers still opposed? Who knows? Not Deputy Cameron from now on; and that’s the point, isn’t it? No knowledge, therefore no challenge.

And the final thought? A logical extension of the principle behind this bizarre interpretation of Rule 49 is that if it is wrong for Deputy Cameron to attend discussions and votes on secondary and post-16 education within committee, then it must also be wrong for him to do so in States meetings. Watch this space, democrats.