Cabinet fever, by Peter Roffey
Thursday 22nd August 2013, 5:00PM BST.
A RECENT editorial in the Jersey Evening Post delivered a scathing attack on that island’s ministerial system of government.
It was real food for thought, with Guernsey considering whether to follow Jersey down the ministerial path. Indeed, some deputies claim it’s already happening by stealth. I’ll look at the issues in a minute but first here’s an extract from that leader column.
‘It is highly unlikely that anyone would now argue that the introduction of ministerial government has been a success. The system has reduced political accountability, polarised the States into squabbling factions, failed to increase efficiency to any discernible degree and, in general, seems so far to be inferior in most respects to the consensual, inclusive committee system it replaced with such fanfare eight years ago.
‘One of its fundamental flaws is that it gives too much power to unelected civil servants. Another is that it simultaneously gives too much power to individual politicians. In an Assembly not overburdened with top talent, that is a recipe for discontent, suspicion and controversy…’
I’ve talked about the pros and cons of cabinet government before but let’s consider the history for a moment. Ten years back, there were fundamental reviews of both islands’ systems of government. The Clothier Report in Jersey and the Harwood Report in Guernsey both recommended changing from the traditional committee system to a ministerial system.
The Jersey States agreed but the Guernsey States overwhelmingly rejected the idea.
So far, so simple. But perversely, our States, while saying no to ministerial government, decided to start calling their committee presidents ‘ministers’. I warned at the time that names were powerful things and that if you called people ministers, it was only a matter of time before both they and others posed the question – ‘if we’re called ministers, why don’t we have proper ministerial powers?’
Even more perversely, the States decided to create a brand new office of chief minister within a non-ministerial system.
You couldn’t make it up.
The justification for these antics was that the fancy new titles – while not a correct job description – would give our top politicians more cachet when dealing with people off-island. Nobody would be impressed with meeting Guernsey’s Advisory and Finance president but they would take a different attitude if they met our chief minister. And they weren’t to know that we didn’t genuinely have any ministers at all. I hope you’re following this.
I confess the ploy may have had some success outside Guernsey, but only at the cost of confusion and muddle at home. Maybe those problems could have been resolved if everybody had really accepted the previous States’ decision to reject executive government. In reality, though, a few powerful politicians and civil servants were convinced it was the wrong decision and were determined that the change would happen whether the States wanted it or not.
Ever since, we’ve seen the salami slicing of responsibility away from the departments and towards the political centre. All the time, those driving that process have been complaining loudly that they don’t want executive government – ‘no sir, not me, no way’. We’ve even had one leading player denying that there is any such thing as ‘the political centre’. Priceless.
It’s high time this situation was sorted out and Guernsey decides what sort of governmental system it wants: a consensus-style committee system or a centralised ministerial system.
When we arrive at that crossroads, many might ask what Guernsey’s objection is to cabinet government anyway? After all, most countries use that model and having just a few people in charge should in theory deliver more accountability and greater efficiency. The snag, as the Jersey Evening Post has realised, is that such systems work very well within a structure of party politics but are anathema within an assembly of independent deputies. It just doesn’t work.
If you concentrate power in a small cabinet, that group of ministers has to be confident of carrying their will on the floor of the parliament nearly all the time. In a party system, they can be pretty sure of that because the government is made up of a party or a coalition with a parliamentary majority. So barring revolutions by their own party members, whatever they propose goes through.
In our system, it just tends to create an informal opposition bigger than the executive. UK-style executive government without party politics is plain daft and unworkable. If we needed further proof, then Jersey has provided it.