Grasping the fiscal nettle
Thursday 31st January 2013, 5:00PM GMT.
POLITICS and religion have many things in common.
They have been banned as subjects of polite conversation at some rather sterile dinner parties. They have the ability to inspire both good and bad acts by devotees of particular creeds. And both sometimes create fundamentalists unwilling to countenance any alternative view of the world. This last aspect is the worst feature of religion and politics and always ends in tears.
In history we have had Christians tearing strips off each other over how to worship their god, a classic example being the burning alive of three Guernsey women in 1556 for mocking the Eucharistic wafer. Famously, the Catholic Bailiff of the day ordered a baby born in that inferno to be thrown back into the flames. Just recently we’ve seen Islamic extremists in Mali destroy the libraries and ancient tombs of Timbuktu on the basis that they are idolatrous.
In politics, too, there are plenty of examples of dissent being branded as treachery and needing to be mercilessly wiped out.
In the revolutionary fervour following the Russian revolution, splinter groups of communists with slightly different political beliefs were wiped out even more savagely than the czarists had been. Even today in ‘democratic’ Sri Lanka we see the Chief Justice being sacked by the government on the basis of dubious allegations. Her real crime? Insisting on an independent judiciary. It seems some people really can’t tolerate an alternative view.
How does all this relate to politics in Guernsey today?
Well, it seems as if for some people the Financial Transformation Programme has become an article of faith that can brook no dissent.
Where there should be no argument from any but the very foolish is that Guernsey needs to balance its books very soon. The habit of running through our reserves to finance annual black holes has gone on long enough.
So either we need radically to cut government spending or else raise taxes. Probably we need to do quite a lot of the former and a bit of the latter. But surely the exact way in which we do it is up for debate? After all, there are many ways of skinning a cat.
Even in the UK, with its massive problem of accumulated debt, the IMF is urging George Osborne to consider tempering his austerity programme to help foster economic growth. So surely in Guernsey, with its history of prudence and lack of debt, deputies can at least do each other the courtesy of considering alternative action plans rather than just shouting down as heresy any criticism of the FTP.
Certainly if I were looking for tablets of stone to build my political belief system on, I would hesitate to embrace unquestioningly a credo which started with punishing the weak-bladdered by closing public conveniences and jeopardising our bus service.
And if there is one thing worse than fanatical faith, it is blind faith. Yet it seems that many in the centre of government want deputies to sign up fully to the FTP without even knowing what the consequences will be – ‘Don’t ask for the details, just sign on the dotted line’.
I have no problem with asking them to sign up to balancing the books, but to suggest that the only path to that goal is the gospel according to the consultants getting 6% of each saving is clearly nonsense. If any deputy does give their blind commitment to supporting the FTP programme in toto and then finds it necessitates them breaking election promises, then they have only themselves to blame. But perhaps that would be a neat way to get out of all of those inconvenient pledges to the electorate?
Even worse, there seems to be a belief in some quarters that the FTP should not be burdened with the nuisance of being scrutinised.
Sadly, the leader of that camp is the chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. If the select committees are to have any meaning or relevance, they really must be probing the most important and central of States’ policies and programmes – and there are none bigger at the moment than the FTP.
Scrutiny and Public Accounts should be all over it like a rash. For instance, if the Education Department meets its savings target by closing schools while leaving its bloated central administration untouched, that should be challenged and the department made to justify itself. If these things go unchallenged, we risk permanent and unnecessary damage to core public services.
By the way, how can we square this timid chairman of Scrutiny with the roaring lion when he was first elected to the post? Mr Arditti was going to be holding frequent public hearings and really holding the States of Guernsey to account. So far that has proved to be a damp squib and regrettably it seems the Scrutiny chairman may talk a better game than he plays.
But coming back to the central theme of the FTP and whether it needs to be followed blindly in every jot and tittle. A survey by this newspaper found only two members opposed to the programme. That is two too many.
Guernsey needs to cut its coat to suit its cloth. But that doesn’t mean that all dissent is destructive or that alternative ideas can’t be improvements to the programme of spending reduction rather than impediments to it.
One has to ask what the point is in having a parliament if it can’t debate and revise proposals.
And it can only do that if it knows exactly what those proposals are in order consider the alternatives.
Yes the FTP is a pressing imperative which has probably been delayed too long, but that doesn’t justify control freakery from the political centre.
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