Jersey: A Bannana Republic Heading for Dictatorship, says Senator

(Letter published by Senator Stuart Syvret in Jersey Evening Post, 27 April 2005)

his letter (JEP, 9 April) concerning the Jersey Democratic Alliance, Hugh Gill criticises the very notion of political parties in Jersey. He goes on to suggest that somehow political parties are 'less democratic' and that what we need is a continuation of 'individual representation'.

Some other correspondents have expressed similar views. These letters made me wonder whether the public fully appreciate that genuine independence on the part of politicians will effectively be over after the next election.

I am not a member of the JDA, so what I write here is not in support of any particular organisation. Rather it is an attempt to alert the public to the fact that genuinely independent politics will simply not be possible within the new executive government.

Traditionally, many of us like to think that 'independent' candidates are better than members of a party. This is because such independent members are in theory free agents, able to make up their own mind on the issues and speak freely. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that political parties offer no advantages. At present, in the absences of parties, we have no real ability to choose the political philosophy or the programme of policies by which we are governed. Nor do we have the ability to readily identify and vote out a government that has failed us.

However, let us assume that there is a wish to continue the cultural approach of having a States Assembly consisting of independent members. Senator Walker and his establishment colleagues have made certain that genuine independence will have no place in the new executive government. They have done this through two specific measures.

Firstly, only the Chief Minister will be able to nominate States Members to the ministerial posts. Thus only those States Members who are pleasing to the Chief Minister stand any chance of gaining an executive post in the new system of government. The Chief Minister will have prime ministerial patronage.

In what can only be described as a constitutional perversity, the substantive proposition by which each minister is nominated will not be susceptible to amendment. In plain English, this means that the States can only say 'yes' or 'no' to candidates proposed by the Chief Minister. No alternative candidates can be proposed by other States Members, even though their preferred candidates may be the best people for the job.

This means that your elected representatives sitting in your parliament will have less power over the composition of the cabinet that is going to govern our Island than shareholders have over the composition of the board of a company at an annual meeting.

Secondly, the establishment have made it absolutely plain that party political-style loyalty and obedience will be required of all Ministers; they must 'toe the line' or resign their post.

The establishment have desperately resisted all attempts to introduce a guarantee of free speech for ministers.

This means that independently elected Members must surrender their independence to the collective will of cabinet colleagues if they wish to be ministers.

The dilemma faced by genuinely independent politicians will be this. Insist upon retaining your independence and freedom to speak your mind, and consequently be excluded from executive positions - or agree to 'toe the line', join the cabinet and find yourself being required to publicly and mendaciously support pol-icies you may not actually believe in.

These two ploys by the establishment, to limit and control the political role of 'independent'' States Members, make it absolutely clear that their objective is a party political style of government - by stealth.

This outcome, from a democratic point of view, delivers to the community the very worst of both worlds.

We get neither free-thinking individuals as leaders who are able to speak their own minds; nor do we get the opportunity to vote for parties which best match our political views and which can then go on to form a government with a coherent set of policies. The system that has been engineered by the establishment delivers the advantages of neither approach and instead manifests all of the disadvantages of each system.

This will be the worst of both worlds - a party political-style government without the voting public being able to choose the governing party.

So with the new system of cabinet government about to start, the real choice we face is not one of political parties or 'independent' members; the choice we face is between openly declared parties, which are open to members of the general public to join and contribute to policy formulation, or a system of even more covert and clandestine de facto political parties with 'members' in the cabinet obliged to observe 'party' loyalty.

This dilemma could, however, be avoided if the States can be persuaded to safeguard real independence in the new system of government through two measures - namely ensuring that the States Assembly retains the right to nominate ministers and that the freedom of speech of ministers is guaranteed.

I shall make one final attempt to persuade my political colleagues that these two safeguards are necessary.

Should this attempt fail, the States will be voting for a party political future, and the public will be able to tell from this vote just which States Members are really in favour of genuine consensus politics.

In an interview in the JEP, in which he attempted to portray, rather unwisely in my view, his party political opponents as some kind of threat to society, Senator Frank Walker spoke of the need for people of differing political views to work together. He added:

'What comes forward, which is a Jersey tradition, is consensus. Is the Island ready to abandon that sort of politics, that political culture, for the divisiveness the Jersey Democratic Alliance are clearly putting forward?'

These words are deeply surprising from a man who has fought tooth and nail to remove from the States the right of your States Members to nominate their colleagues as ministers and - even more divisively - has made it plain that party political-style obedience will be required from members of the cabinet.

Senator Walker has vociferously fought all attempts in the States to secure a guarantee of freedom of speech for ministers. But given the words of Senator Walker quoted above, perhaps he has finally recognised the fact - for it is a fact - that the system of prime ministerial patronage and cabinet obedience hitherto favoured by him cannot be, and will not be, compatible with independent politics.

Senator Walker and his establishment colleagues cannot have it both ways.

They must decide whether they want independent, consensual politics or party politics.

What those of us who care about the quality of democracy in our community cannot tolerate - and will not stand by and accept - is the impending worst-of-both-worlds situation in which we have a 'prime minister' who is leading a cabinet under party political-style control without the public having had the democratic opportunity to vote for the Chief Minister's party.