A Fresh Perspective: Bringing Question Period to the Knesset

"The rules of Question Period are quite simple. The president of the parliament invites the ministers of the French government to come to parliament and answer questions from parliamentarians."

By
November 5, 2015 13:56
Tzachi Hanegbi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yuli Edelstein, and Isaac Herzog

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head MK Tzachi Hanegbi (R), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and opposition chief Isaac Herzog. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

On a recent trip to France, I was invited to the National Assembly, France’s parliament, to assist their “Question Period.”

The rules of Question Period are quite simple. The president of the parliament invites the ministers of the French government to come to parliament and answer questions from parliamentarians.

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He then calls on parliamentarians to ask tough questions to the ministers. Part of the questions are asked by the opposition, others by the ruling party.

The discussions are often heated and the debate is harsh. However, this one hour of weekly Question Period ensures that the spirit of democracy is kept in line, and that the executive branch is held accountable by the legislative branch.

As I returned to Israel, I read on the news that coalition chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) and opposition MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) have just agreed to implement a similar Question Period in the Knesset.

Such an implementation can help bring back some of the prestige that the Knesset has lost, and make it once again the central branch of our democratic government.

A weak parliament In fact, Israel’s governing system has two main problems, which are very related.

Israel has a very weak Knesset. This is mostly due to a weak separation between the executive branch and the legislative branch, making the legislative branch powerless.

One of the central roles of the legislative branch is to oversee the work done by the executive branch, the government ministers. However, in Israel, this job is almost never done.

The main reasons for that are two-fold: The Knesset’s majority is made up of members of the parties that form the coalition and that, therefore, have absolutely no interest in seeing the government fall. They prefer turning a blind eye to the government’s shortcomings rather than properly overseeing its work.

However, this alone would not be a problem since it is the situation in many parliamentary democracies. What makes it a problem is that it is coupled with the fact that parliamentarians in Israel are elected as part of a party’s list, and not by representing a geographical area.

This reality means that the loyalties of the parliamentarian lies first with the party, and not with the voters in one’s area.

In a dilemma between properly overseeing and even criticizing the work done by one’s party in government, and party loyalty, a Knesset member who wants to get reelected must choose party loyalty.

Of course, this is not true for opposition parties. However, Knesset protocol never allows opposition parties to directly ask questions to ministers. They can send written questions, make speeches from the Knesset podium, force the ministers to come and make a speech on a certain subject, but they cannot ask a direct question that warrants a direct answer.

This is exactly what Question Period is: direct questions by parliamentarians to ministers. Of course, one still does not expect members of coalition parties to ask tough questions, but now the opposition will have a powerful tool to do a more effective job.

An extremely strong court The second problem facing Israel’s government system is an incredibly strong court that has completely ignored the separation of powers and has been involved in policy making instead of simply applying the laws made by the Knesset.

Much has already been written about the courts’ outrageous overreach of power, with the highly respectable professor and US judge Richard Posner even calling Aharon Barak, the former president of the Supreme Court, an “enlightened despot.”

However, one must listen to the claims made by the supporters of this aggressive judicial intervention, even as we keep on disagreeing with it.

The most convincing claim made by the court’s supporters is that with a weak Knesset, someone in Israel must review the actions of the executive branch, and since there is a vacuum in doing so, the court was pressed to act in order to do so.

Democracy requires checks and balances, and if the Knesset does not provide them, the courts must.

The problem is that while it is true that democratic theory requires checks and balances, and while it is also true that the Knesset is doing a bad job at providing them, the answer should not be to give more power to unelected officials.

The very spirit of democracy requires that the checks and balances are provided by elected officials, placed in different branches, and with competing interests.

Thus, in the US, power is given to the executive branch led by the president, and to both the Senate and the House of Representatives that are formed in very different ways.

This means that legislation needs to pass three different institutions to be considered valid, but all these institutions are elected. Sure, the courts in the United States also have the power of judicial review, but they are highly criticized when using it and they exercise it based on a written constitution that was legislated as such, and they therefore get their power from the legislator. In Israel, the courts basically made up a constitution based on basic laws that were explicitly not meant to form a constitution until decided otherwise.

The courts in the United States, with all of the criticism pointed at them, are much less activist and interventionist than the courts in Israel.

Having an unelected body do the work of an elected body is incredibly problematic.

Thus, having the court do the Knesset’s work when overseeing the government’s work is a true problem for democracy.

The court’s powers have to be limited regardless of whether the division of powers between the executive and the legislative branch is enhanced. However, ensuring a more effective overseeing of the government’s work by the Knesset would remove the strongest argument for judicial activism that currently exists in Israel.

Do not expect miracles One must however be careful when singing the praises of Question Period.

We can already foresee that most of Question Period will be used to ask populist questions that look good on camera, and make a lot of noise. Arab MKs will use it to insult our prime minister directly to his face, leftist socialists will use it to ask emotionally charged questions that sound good but make no logical sense, and far-right MKs will use it to always ask for more forceful response against our enemies, however strong our response will be.

There will be a lot of screaming, a lot of insults and a lot of noise. However, it is worth all of it.

At the end of the day, there will also be from time to time the respectable MK that asks an incredibly important policy question to the minister, or prime minister, who will be forced to answer that question directly and on camera, with very little opportunity to dodge the question.

Our democracy was created for these few important moments when the representatives of the people ensure that those who rule us act for the people. It is these moments that make our whole democratic system worth it all.

Let us hope that the proposal to institute Question Period in the Knesset is indeed implemented.

The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.


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