Is the fight over publicizing how ministers vote on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation about transparency or populism? On the transparency side, it has been argued that publicity avoids back-room deals, that the light of transparency increases public involvement and trust in the government, and that a majority of the ministers is in favor of publicizing the votes.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s office has come out in favor of transparency, charging that cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit or his legal adviser has blocked the issue with a recent legal opinion that only the full cabinet can decide whether to make such votes public.
However, those opposing say that the picture is much more complex and call Livni’s push simplistic populism.
First, they say that there is nothing new about keeping how ministers vote anonymously, stating this has been the position of all governments.
Second, they draw a fundamental distinction between the Knesset legislature and the cabinet, which is part of the executive branch.
They say that, whereas it is completely appropriate in the Knesset to make votes transparent and have all issues aired as publicly as possible, the cabinet should be different.
In contrast, some say the cabinet should be “like one man with one heart” as its bedrock principle, as it is the governing organ of a coalition which has agreed on certain common principles with which to run the government.
Those who label the move for more voting transparency as a negative populist push, say that another principle of serving in the cabinet is collective responsibility.
Collective responsibility means that, even as a minority in internal cabinet meetings can fight to the hilt for its viewpoint, once a decision is made, all ministers must either wholeheartedly support the decision publicly or quit – there are no other choices, they say.
They also note that making the votes public could have a chilling effect on spirited debate behind closed doors, since ministers would need to respond to questions about their votes.
Next, those who oppose making the votes public note that a comparative review of England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other nations with similar parliamentary democracies found that none of the nations reviewed makes such votes public.
Supporters of Livni’s initiative respond that Israel is the only government in the world that has a cabinet committee dealing with legislation, arguing that comparisons to other countries are “apples and oranges.”
They say that the Ministerial Committee on Legislation is the beginning of the legislative process and is essentially an extension of the Knesset and should have similar rules on transparency.
Next, they say that everything about such committee hearings is political and often everyone finds out how people voted anyway. This is because ministers who are proud of their votes tout them and those who are disappointed with others’ votes leak how the opposition voted.
They also said that the political nature of the committee and its connection specifically to legislation makes ministers stick to their party agenda, regardless of the coalition’s position.
Supporters also say that the fact that most bills in the committee have a private MK’s name on them makes them even more a part of the legislative process.
On the other hand, opponents criticize the initiative as a “slippery slope” which would lead to an artificial distinction of only publicizing the votes of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, but not other committees nor protocols.
Supporters respond that the legislative quality of the cabinet committee makes it unique, eliminating the slippery slope concern.
However, opponents say that such a distinction is not sustainable and lacks internal logic, and eventually the votes and protocols of all ministerial committees should be made public.
Though Livni appears to have attempted a carefully and narrowly targeted transparency initiative to open parts of ministerial discussions, it appears that it may be too radical and too contrary to the collective responsibility principle that distinguishes the cabinet’s work from the Knesset’s to be accepted.