Sunday, 16 November 2014

Total Recall

If people darken my door demanding my signature because an AM has broken
wind in a child's face or double parked, I might decide to get my ass to Mars.
(Pic : mubi.com)
During a lecture held by the Electoral Reform Society Wales earlier this week, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), proposed a new policy which would allow the public to force a by-election in the National Assembly, or force a regional list AM to stand down and be replaced.

The Welsh Lib Dem's full policy document, Paying Down the Democratic Deficit - which includes plenty of other ideas like increasing the number of AMs, reform of the Ministerial Code in Wales and widespread adoption of PR - is available here (pdf).

The issue of "recall" of MPs is currently in the news as a Bill is going through Westminster to introduce it there (more from the Assembly Research Service). Recall is also used in the United States, where it (in)famously led to Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming Governor of California.

At the moment, the only way to remove an AM from office and/or force a by-election is if they're sentenced to prison for 12 months+, resign voluntarily or die. Even if an AM is suspended or expelled by a party – for whatever reason – they're entitled to see out their term of office as an Independent.

Kirsty Williams proposes that if 20% of the electorate in a constituency sign a petition within a 2 month window (not two weeks?), a referendum for a recall by-election will be held, and if there's a yes vote, a full by-election will be triggered within another 2 months.

For regional list AMs, if 20% of the constituents in each and every FPTP constituency in their region sign a recall petition, the AM will be forced from office and replaced by whoever was next on the party list.

The principle is that if an AM does something we don't like - but falls short of offences which would see them forfeit their seat anyway (like being sent to prison for more than a year) - we can "throw them out".

Is that really fair, though?

Each case of "bringing the Assembly into disrepute" should be judged on its own set of circumstances. Determining that is currently the job of the Assembly's Standards Committee and the independent Standards Commissioner - that's what they're there for.

That doesn't mean this recall process will be too easy to trigger. The bar is set very high indeed - 20% of the electorate in the Bridgend constituency, for example, is around 12,000 people. It also makes it next to impossible to recall regional list members, as 20% of the electorate in each FPTP constituency in a region is easily 70-80,000 signatures. Turnout in a recall by-election or referendum will probably be incredibly low too.

Considering the political apathy in Wales, an "incident" would have to be really, really bad for the public to demand a by-election; so bad that an AM would have to resign anyway. No AM has come near generating those levels of bad publicity for themselves.

I also doubt blowhards who leave comments on Wales Online will risk catching hypothermia going door to door, drumming up signatures because of whatever AMs have done to offend them this week - like breathing at taxpayers' expense, or eating the wrong crisp flavour.

Not being able to please everyone all the time is something politicians have to live with. But as long as a politician who's been caught out by the rules shows remorse for what they've supposedly done, and works to rebuild trust, that should be enough and we can move on.

Unfortunately, politicians - as a group - try to create an impression of sanctimonious infallibility, so their role ends up being given more respect and deference than it deserves. This results in an awful lot of shallow hair-shirting, and it's this that gives those who would like to send them crashing back down to Earth a licence to look for even the slightest chink in their armour.

We can all think of occasions when AMs have done or said something that's pissed us off; but I'm willing to bet those same AMs have done good too, and away from the spotlight will be genuinely decent people who make bad decisions from time to time – like the plonker who likes their plonk (I find it hard to believe an AM could have their head that far up their backside, and I suspect someone was having a giggle at the Western Mail's expense).

If politicians aren't up to the job, we can deselect them (if you're a party member) or we can vote for someone else, based on policies and what they stand for, not their brain farts.


The reaction to misbehaviour in the Assembly often resembles the levels of righteous indignation you'll find on a school playground.
Judgements are always quick, the punishments harsh and there's little room for forgiveness - but it's also (sometimes) quickly forgotten. So my concern would be that we'll end up with constant calls for such-and-such to stand down for cracking open an egg the wrong way, something they said on Twitter or for hanging out in bars frequented by women with three breasts.

That wouldn't be "democracy in action". Instead it's a bit pathetic. The last thing we need to do is give the sort of anti-politics populism that's pumping up the UKIP beach ball more credence than it deserves.

There's an old adage, "We get the politicians we deserve". So h
alf the responsibility for creating a higher standard of politics in Wales falls on the electorate. We have to raise our own game.
The first step towards that is to stop getting wound up by stupid things, and stop placing too much emphasis on how politicians act instead of what they do.

"Recall" is, at the end of the day, a euphemistic way of saying "holding a referendum to sack someone".

To do justice to the AM in question there has to be a concrete reason for any recall based on job performance, past standards of behaviour, gross hypocrisy and the level of seriousness of any rule breach. Not liking them or their lifestyles shouldn't count.

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