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Bringing online order to parliamentary business

21 May 2020: while coronavirus has challenged chartered accountants in any number of ways, one Institute member has been presented with a unique task: keeping the world’s oldest continuous parliament running.

“Operating a parliament is not quite the same as a board meeting,” Juan Watterson told ICAEW Insights from his home office in the Isle of Man. 

For the past three years, he has served as Speaker of the House of Keys, the directly elected lower branch of the island’s parliament. 

Due to the current lockdown measures, Watterson’s ceremonial wig and gown are currently not required, and the crown dependency’s politicians are currently operating a virtual parliament via Microsoft Teams.

While keen to stress that technology has at least allowed parliamentary business to continue, Watterson is the first to admit that things are working slower and communication is harder. 

“Much of politics is about building consensus, and running a parliament isn’t the same as a normal board meeting,” he said. “Parliament is bigger, more partisan, and often without shared goals. As Speaker, you can’t ‘eyeball’ the room in the same way, and check on body language in the debating chamber.

Although the Isle of Man has good broadband links, parliament can only operate at the speed of the slowest participant, and with the cameras off. Voting also takes longer. At the physical house, MPs have red or green voting buttons, allowing the Speaker to see results almost instantly. In the virtual world, parliamentarians have to write their votes in the chatbox and the clerks must tally them up.

Politics and accountancy

Watterson spent five years as an accountant with KPMG, first in Newcastle then back on the Isle of Man, where he became a public sector specialist. During that time, he was also ICAEW Student Council Chairman. However, the lure of politics on his native Island proved too much, and at 26 he was elected as the crown dependency’s second-youngest MP in its history for his local constituency of Rushen, which he has served for almost 14 years. 

He went on to become Minister for Home Affairs at 31 – the Island’s youngest minister by some 15 years. Following the last general election, he was elected as Speaker of what is commonly regarded as the world’s oldest continuously running parliament.

While his time in accountancy was a relatively short stint, Watterson believes it stood him in good stead. “When I was out campaigning for the first time, I found people really respected the qualification,” he said.

His background also prepared him well for the not-insignificant task of running a government department, and in five years he was able to cut costs by a quarter and still cut crime. “This is training that being a chartered accountant gives you,” he commented.

On a more general note, Watterson was full of praise for Isle of Man residents’ response to the ‘stay safe, stay home’ campaign, resulting in just two new cases in the past week and a total of more than 300 confirmed cases. 

While a full reopening of the island is some way off, its inhabitants are seeing a slow relaxation of the lockdown, and Watterson remains hopeful that at some point soon he will be required to dig out his wig and gown and resume the business of parliament.