A colossal exercise in pomposity, by Peter Roffey
Thursday 26th September 2013, 5:30PM BST.
JERSEY’S States have decided to create a new post of foreign minister.
Guernsey’s Social Security minister, Deputy Allister Langlois, thinks we should follow suit. Chief Minister Peter Harwood disagrees, stressing that it’s important for all ministers to carry out the external relations that relate to their individual departments.
So who’s right?
How much external politicking do we need to do as an island? And who among our deputies is best placed to do it?
The first question that needs answering is what we – or indeed Jersey – mean by foreign affairs. Does it include our relations with the UK, which represents most of our external politics? Or does it only mean political interface with third countries? If it’s the former then surely minister for external affairs would be a better title, as neither Guernsey nor Jersey are nation states and so describing relations with the UK as foreign is something of a misnomer.
On the other hand, if we are only talking about our international relations beyond the UK, then how much of a job is there to do? After all, not long ago we used to explain Guernsey’s constitutional position to confused outsiders by saying ‘we are autonomous in everything but defence and international relations, which the UK look after on our behalf’. That’s still basically the situation today, although the distinction has been blurred somewhat by the UK’s welcome decision to delegate to us responsibility for negotiating some bilateral treaties such as tax information exchange agreements.
Of course, once you get away from purely political relations and on to the promotional side of Guernsey’s external relations, then we are free to do as we see fit.
If we want to raise our profile in China, India or Dubai, that has nothing to do with constitutional conventions. Rather, it’s just us selling our wares and trying to drum up business. That’s not principally a political task, but involving key deputies from time to time may oil a few wheels.
So what conclusions can we draw from all of the above about the need for a foreign minister?
Well firstly, unlike Jersey, we don’t have real ministers, just committee presidents called ministers. So it would be slightly odd to have a foreign minister with no foreign affairs department/committee sitting behind them. Indeed, it would represent yet another example of changing our system of government on the sly. How long before people asked, ‘if the foreign minister is a one-man/woman band without a committee to chair, then why not do the same for T&R or Social Security?’.
So either we would need to set up yet another expensive departmental apparatus or else set a precedent of having a freestanding minister who didn’t need to the approval of political colleagues to act. Also, who the heck would take precedence when negotiating, say, a new reciprocal health agreement? (I know, chance would be a fine thing.) Would it be the responsible department – HSSD – or the new-fangled foreign minister?
Leaving aside these arcane constitutional questions, I suppose the real crunch question is how much work would there be for a genuine foreign minister to do? Surely the T&R minister or the chief minister can put their monogram on TIEAs and the odd other bilateral agreement without breaking sweat.
If, on the other hand, we are talking about the wider role of an external affairs minister, whose work included relations with the UK, then I tend to agree with Deputy Harwood.
What on earth is the point in creating yet another layer of bureaucracy when HSSD is best placed to negotiate on health-related issues and the Education Department on university fees? Sometimes the issues involved can be more fundamental, such as explaining our taxation policy, but hopefully we’ll need to do so less following the UK prime minister’s recent epiphany moment.
Anyway, that falls squarely within either T&R’s mandate or that of the Policy Council. And if it’s felt vital to attend party conferences, then surely one of our current leaders can go and watch girders rust without creating a brand new post?
Whichever way you look at it, Guernsey’s external political affairs are fairly modest and can easily be dealt with within the existing structure. So setting up a brand new position of either foreign minister or external affairs minister would be a waste of money at a time we can ill afford it and a colossal exercise in pomposity.