Drive-thru Democracy by MHKs has Serious Implications

Today we find ourselves in the odd position of hoping that the Legislative Council will stand firm to protect the democratic process.

The same Legislative Council that is not elected by the public but appointed by the House of Keys.

The same House of Keys that last week stuck up two metaphorical fingers at transparency and public accountability – with the honourable exceptions of Chris Thomas, John Wannenburgh and Jason Moorhouse, who voted against the move to dodge the normal procedures in place to protect those concepts.

These views will be branded scaremongering.

But this government and its predecessor have form for seeing transparency and public engagement as only worth it when convenient to them – as evidenced with the previous two-finger salute to voters with the handling of the Island Plan.

The backbenchers in the House of Keys are allowing them to get away with it and the latest example stems from something that has, largely, slipped under the radar.

Last Tuesday, the House of Keys agreed to suspend its standing orders – rules – and allow Health Minister Lawrie Hooper to push through all four stages of scrutiny of the Manx Care (Amendment) Bill at one sitting.

Today the Legislative Council will be asked to suspend its procedural rules and allow similar to happen. Will MLCs stand up and say no?

In terms of scrutiny, the branches of Tynwald have turned into the legislative equivalent of a drive-thru fast food joint. Problem is, when it’s only after driving away that you discover it’s not the burger you thought you were getting, you shrug and accept it.

But it’s easier to discard a gherkin you didn’t ask for than it is to ditch a legislative howler that slipped through because the good burghers of Tynwald didn’t take time to consider.

I’ve said before, talking about the abuse of process over the Island Plan, there are good reasons for having the scrutiny stages at different Keys sittings. To take all four stages on the day scheduled for a first reading is a new high, – or low – in terms of government disregard for the democratic protections and MHKs’ acquiescence.

A first reading should place legislation in the public domain and give the public chance to know of its existence, examine its content and, where necessary, engage with MHKs, before actual debate takes place in the following weeks.

The minister’s arguments for not doing this are confusing.

We are told the bill is enabling legislation – to allow, separately, regulations to be drawn up and placed before Tynwald for approval at a later date – so nothing to worry about. The hurry was because the government wants to get on with things.

So the legislative desert that has seen the gov produce just one other bill in the six months leading up to last week must be a figment of our imagination.

Mr H also mentioned the bill, paving the way for new health service complaints procedures to be implemented, was in response to a request from Tynwald dating back to April last year.

The Keys was told his department hadn’t realised that, first of all, a new law (primary legislation) would have to be approved before these regulations (secondary legislation) could be put to Tynwald.

Presumably, this was realised quite late in the day, hence the hurry.

Yet we are expected that the rest of it has been produced with sufficient care for MHKs to nod through the required enabling legislation in less than an hour, with no time for public engagement.

Naturally, Comin gave a private briefing to MHKs about all this, in keeping with the creeping erosion of public debate.

One can only assume that, at this private briefing, a more convincing argument for this abuse of democratic process was given to explain the sudden and desperate hurry, one year after the relevant Tynwald debate.

It’s hard not to conclude the issue may be a little more serious than might be first thought.

Why railroad through a bill unless there has been spotted in current law a loophole with major implications?

Or maybe there’s a hugely embarrassing and potentially costly cock-up waiting to be exposed.

We don’t know. We can’t even be sure if the MHKs know, so busy are they reprising the nodding dog routine.

The word transparency is thrown around like confetti by politicians. Mr Hooper, in his parliamentary profile, talks of ‘ensuring we have an open and transparent government that is subject to robust scrutiny’.

MHKs’ spent a whole 35-and-a-half minutes on the scrutiny of the Manx Care (Amendment) Bill before passing it.

Transparent government and robust scrutiny?

Are current politicians so  blinkered and politically illiterate that they genuinely do not see a problem with repeatedly rough-riding over rules that are meant to support accountability, protect democracy ensure accountability?

Do backbenchers really think they’re doing the job of holding gov to account? Do we, as voters, agree?

Unless the non-government members of Tynwald get their act together, this kind of thing will keep happening. We’ll be told it’s cutting through red tape.

This government doesn’t seem to understand the difference between bureaucracy and democracy – and it doesn’t want you to, either.

But when an administration decides which bits of its work shouldn’t be subject to the usual level of scrutiny – and no one stops it – it’s time to worry.

Over to you, Legislative Council.

·   You can read the Hansard of the entire House of Keys debate on the Manx Care (Amendment) Bill on the Tynwald website – it won’t take long.