Here’s a little story for you, which has caused me to reflect on my role as a politician and our expectations of politicians.
On Thursday morning I sustained a prolapsed disc. It was an exceptionally painful experience as you might imagine, although not a new one as I have a history of back problems. For a while I had to lie on the floor, then I was helped to my feet with the help of my son, and was able to lean on some crutches. Then the phone went. My son held the phone in front of me so I could talk to the caller. It turned out to be a member of the public, who wanted to talk about EV car chargers (or maybe charges). He talked for a while, but then I had to interrupt as I was still in considerable pain. I explained that I was on crutches, that I wasn’t able to talk, and asked the caller if he could phone back in the evening when I would be able to talk properly. At this point he became quite hostile. He accused me of being a typical politician, not wanting to answer questions, looking for excuses not to talk, and as there had been no reports of me being incapacitated he didn’t believe that I was on crutches. I’m afraid that I was quite short with him at that point and said I wouldn’t take the conversation any further.
However, that wasn’t the end of the matter. A few minutes later I received another call. This time it was from a policeman. He told me that he’d just taken a call from a member of the public who had reported that I might be incapacitated. Was I OK? I explained that with the aid of crutches I was able to start moving around.
So what to make of this? Obviously the person who phoned me had then called the police. Did they suddenly have a pang of conscience and a genuine concern for my condition? Or were they hoping to embarrass me by getting the police to “prove” that there was nothing wrong with me? I have no idea. However the whole experience made me think about the public’s view of politicians. It would be easy for me to criticise the caller – he clearly leapt to a false conclusion. But the more interesting thought is why would a member of the public have such an intrinsically negative view of politicians – even when they don’t know the person in question?
On some levels it is understandable. It’s hard to gain trust, and very easy for it to be lost. In Jersey’s recent past, political decision making has often been opaque and poorly explained (as the departing Lieutenant Governor intimated in his final address to the States Assembly). As a new government we have an acute responsibility to engage more with the public, to explain what we’re doing and why and to deal with concerns that are raised. I’m up for that – I spoke a lot during my election campaign about the need for a reset in relations between government and the public.
Equally it would be helpful if everyone could take on board that the decisions we face as a government and as a community are complex and involve difficult trade offs. When I look at social media I see an instant rush to judgement. There’s a tendency to assume not only that a politician has done something bad or wrong, but their motives are unsound, their character fundamentally flawed.
So here’s the bargain. I’m committed to explaining what I do and why, but in return it would be nice to be given the space to explain without an automatic assumption of bad faith. In that spirit, if the gentleman who phoned on Thursday would like to get back in touch, I’ll be happy to try and deal with his query.