IDC debate deliberates over activist position of state comptroller

Joseph Shapira at forum says "goal is to help citizen with socio-economic issues"; Knesset speaker proposes "criticism with discretion".

July 12, 2013 01:45
3 minute read.
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira at a conference in Herzliya.

Joseph Shapira at IDC debate 370. (photo credit: Sarit Font)

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on Thursday said, “Even in a time of budgetary cuts, we must still defend the weaker sectors of society,” as politicians, jurists and academics battled over how vocal the comptroller should be about his views.

Shapira said that “the dignity of man is not just a general value, it must be the basis of all government action and laws” at an Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) conference dealing with the future of the comptroller’s role in a changing society.

The state comptroller reflected past statements in saying, “my biggest goal is to help citizens with socio-economic issues” such as affordable living and food. When people’s “basic needs are not taken care of, they can’t live in dignity,” he stated.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein spoke as well, saying that the very existence of the state comptroller’s role is tantamount to democracy.

“I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that the institution of the ‘state comptroller’ and ‘Ombudsman’ is the only guardian of democracy,” Edelstein declared.

Edelstein noted that in the modern technology era, where access to information is instantaneous, there is a special need to have someone who can “put on the brakes and reflect.”

Edelstein suggested, however, that the comptroller should limit himself to “criticism with discretion.” Edelstein said that the comptroller’s job is to patiently “see all aspects of an issue, before we all cry ‘fire, fire!’” The Knesset Speaker expressed his view that the comptroller should keep away from “the fast paced media which focuses only on immediate current events,” including spurious and unimportant, trumped-up stories. The comptroller should study long-term issues and not get caught up in media storms against specific politicians and policies, suggested Edelstein.

Former supreme court president Aharon Barak pushed for a more activist state comptroller, and voiced his opinion that there should be a separate human rights commission, as in some other countries, which has an even broader reach than the comptroller to address non-legal issues such as education and disseminating information to empower society’s weaker sectors.

Possibly responding to Edelstein’s tone, Barak also said that “all institutions must follow and defend the law regarding the dignity of man – the Knesset itself is not free from this obligation. I am sad that the government is not doing its job.”

Barak concluded by saying, “if we don’t defend democracy, it will not defend us.”

Former justice minister and current IDF dean Amnon Rubinstein also seemed to push for a more active institution of the State Comptroller’s Office, arguing that the comptroller could make sure that we have a “conscience when dealing with the issue of the freedom of human dignity.”

Rubinstein suggested that many government bureaucracies were paying lip-service to individual citizens rights in weaker sectors of society, who need a strong champion to enforce the spirit of their constitutional rights.

Both Rubinstein and Barak appeared to back Shapira’s recent move into more strongly defending the rights of Israeli Arabs and of migrants, even though they are not citizens, and both made mention of the rights of prisoners.

IDC’s Prof. Hillel Summer, on the other hand, argued that if the comptroller took on too many activist missions, he would fail to fully perform his main role in checking the proper workings of government agencies aside from “hot” issues, which threatens to leave the “goal” of the Israeli government “without a goalkeeper.”

President Shimon Peres, who mostly spoke about a number of major issues in the news unrelated to the conference’s focus, also suggested that future reports include complimentary material about mayors and local officials and not only have a negative focus.

When Shapira interjected that an upcoming report would cite three specific mayors as noteworthy in their excellence, Peres retorted, “I think there are a few more good mayors than three.”

Despite the back and forth, the interactions between Peres and Shapira were very respectful, with the comptroller mentioning that as a little boy, he had chased after Peres to get his autograph.

One dynamic part of the question-and-answer session included Shapira reveling in the fact that he recently requested Finance Minister Yair Lapid to make available to the public the protocols of ministry meetings in which major decisions were being made on socio-economic issues impacting large sectors of Israeli society.

He said that within two days Lapid had given an order that protocols be kept and maintained of all such meetings in which he personally participates.

Also in attendance were Knesset State Control Committee Chairman Amnon Cohen (Shas), Police chief Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino, IDF Military Advocate General Maj.-Gen. Danny Efroni and former justice minister Yaakov Neeman.

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