You wanted a government. You got a box of chocolates

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by Lyndsay Feltham

IN the words of Forrest Gump’s mother, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’.

I think that the same could be said for the current States Assembly. Over the past week it has been debating the last Government Plan and Budget of its term of office.

But are the plans that have been voted for, and the voting records of the Assembly, what voters wanted when they visited the polling stations in 2018? I’ve viewed this past week as the final chance for the current government to show its priorities for action in the final months of the political term, how it’s going to use those months to tidy things up and complete the work that will be its legacy, and it’s also a final opportunity for all States Members to try to secure money to deliver the promises that they made when they knocked on your door in 2018.

At this point any budget outlook for future years should be a chance for the government to promote how it would manage public finances into the future if re-elected. But I get the sense that instead of being seen as an end-of-term plan, it is being seen as a rolling plan that rumbles on into the future, with no concrete timeline for action or delivery, never mind any reference to delivering on election promises. No wonder people feel so disillusioned and disengaged.

Part of the problem is the government planning timeline. As far back as I can remember I have always been perplexed that the States Assembly debates the Budget for the next calendar year in the final days before Christmas. It’s problematic for many obvious reasons, the main being that if there is any disagreement with the Budget, there is a matter of days before implementation. It’s like the approval of the Assembly is the final rubber stamp and not intended to be a debate of any consequence – at this point in time any dissent from a member of the government, or successful amendment from a backbencher, could cause real administrative issues within departments.

Is that really a healthy environment for democratic decision-making? Added to that more recently is the requirement for a four-year Government Plan. I can fully understand the need for ongoing budget estimates; however, what we tend to see is a rolling plan when it comes to delivering on policies, where action can easily be deferred as more reviews and consultations are undertaken – more taxpayers’ money being spent with no outcomes, and more crucially no improvement in our day-to-day lives or standard of living. Again this leads to further disengagement from the public.

The other part of the problem is our current ‘pick and mix’ style Assembly, which is made up mainly of independent Members with no common policies and no shared agreement with their electors. Maybe that’s why the Assembly has got into the habit of having these rolling plans, when the public should rightly expect election promises to be delivered over the four-year term of office?

It’s certainly why this Assembly is like the box of chocolates referred to by Forrest Gump: with no common policies amongst the majority of Members there was no way of knowing what we would get by the end of the term of office. The first year was mostly spent agreeing common policies and the initial plan, time that could have been better spent if more Members were elected with a shared set of principles, policies and pledges – which is why I believe that party politics is a better option.

In 2018, with the choice of numerous independent candidates and one political party the choice for the voter was a lot like picking a chocolate from a bag of Revels, which contains a random selection of flavours. As the only publicly stated political party at that time, Reform Jersey was more easily distinguishable, with a shared manifesto and clearly defined election pledges.

These candidates were the Maltesers in the pack, easier to identify and you could make a more informed choice as to whether to vote for their policies or not. The other candidates were independent, with personal statements rather than detailed manifestos, some with previous records and some without, but mostly taken by electors at face value – and as with the remainder of the pack of Revels, you may think you know what you are getting but you can’t be sure until you’ve tried it; if it ends up not being the flavour you imagined you might be disappointed.

But unlike picking a chocolate that you may not like, taking a chance at the ballot box can have far bigger consequences, particularly if everyone is doing it. It could make the difference to your child or grandchild’s education, the type of home that you can live in, or the type of healthcare that is available. These are not things that should be left to a random choice.

If voters are to get the outcomes they want from the next Assembly they have to expect more from candidates and political parties as we approach the 2022 election. Voters should expect a clear four-year plan that candidates have every intention of delivering on, with policies that address their main concerns.

Just like the special tins of chocolates that will be in many of our homes over the Christmas period, which contain clearly wrapped and labelled chocolates, political candidates and parties should give voters enough information to make a decision at the ballot box.

In return I encourage voters to do away with the pick-and-mix approach to local politics, which leads to a coalition of individuals who cannot agree on policy, let alone deliver on their election promises. Our community deserves better than that.

In 2022 Islanders need to be presented with a vision of what each independent candidate or political party wants to achieve by June 2026 and how they intend to do it. When you visit the ballot box you should be very clear about what you are going to get from anyone asking for your vote.

Lyndsay Feltham is chairperson of Reform Jersey and the views expressed are her own.

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