Clamoring for transparency

Few of us realize that the Ministerial Committee on Legislation exists, much less that it is extremely powerful and, most significantly, that it operates in the dark, under conditions of near total confidentiality.

April 24, 2013 22:56
3 minute read.
MK TZIPI LIVNI (center) and, from left, MKs Elazar Stern, Amram Mitzna, Meir Sheetrit, Amir Peretz

Livni Party faction meeting 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

In all likelihood, few of us realize that the Ministerial Committee on Legislation exists, much less that it is extremely powerful and, most significantly, that it operates in the dark, under conditions of near total confidentiality.

This week – at the 13-member committee’s first session since the formation of the current government – Justice Minister Tzipi Livni announced that she planned to lift the veil of secrecy from the proceedings of the committee that she chairs. It is a laudable aim, though many have tried, and failed, before.

Unbeknown to most Israelis, the inconspicuous and uncelebrated Ministerial Committee on Legislation happens to be one of the most powerful arms of the government.

It can kill or promote new laws. Every bill passed by the Knesset in its first reading is submitted to the ministerial committee. Should the committee decide to oppose said bill, it stands no chance as the coalition’s majority is sure to vote it down.

Oddly for a parliamentary democracy, though, we are unlikely to know why any bill was rejected or boosted, who favored and opposed it and why. At best we get to glean partial, often unreliable and tendentious information from leaks. Leakers generally serve an agenda by opting to reveal some tidbits and withhold others.

But nothing better is available as the committee discussions are not even documented in any sort of written protocol.

Moreover, there is no official record of the voting so we have no verifiable data about how many ministers supported or nixed a given item of legislation and who among them voted how.

Livni indeed vowed that her first objective would be to make public by what majority any legislative initiative was backed or foiled and what the position of each minister was regarding each bill.

We take it for granted that not all high-level decisions can be open to comprehensive public scrutiny and not all deliberations can be divulged in full. Foreign relations issues and certainly matters of national security demand that some information be classified. That is natural and broadly acknowledged.

But where is the limit? Where does the pragmatic prerogative to debate and weigh sensitive issues away from the limelight end and where does the people’s right to know take over? Some argue that in certain forums there can be no automatic right to know. Livni’s predecessor Yaakov Neeman, for instance, hotly opposed making committee deliberations and considerations a matter of public record. As he sees it, there is justification for unmonitored discourse.

Without it, the frank exchange of views would be impeded.

Ministers, subjected to inappropriate pressure by interested parties and opinion-molders, would be afraid to sound off forthrightly and to hold their ground against populist fads if the discussion were made public. There would be less serious assessment and attention paid to long-term consequences and more posturing to score popularity points, Neeman reckons.

Neeman’s argument is not without merit. Essentially clandestine committee operations, however, inevitably make it too easy to quash all sorts of initiatives not to the government’s liking. Additionally, the coalition too may be tempted to go the populist route, in which case its copouts would be shielded by the committee’s business being conducted under wraps.

The support for making the committee’s proceedings more transparent crosses all political divides. MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) have introduced a bill in that vein. The Knesset’s left wing has long clamored for transparency.

It is axiomatic that democracy demands transparency, because without transparency there can be no accountability and without accountability there can be no fairness.

Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

Transparent deliberations and votes mean that decisions are open to critical review, significantly reducing the potential for foul play and abuse of the system. When public affairs are conduced behind closed doors, the citizenry’s power to impose its will and influence political moves between elections is diminished. Freedom of information is a vital building block of a liberal democracy.

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