Think About It: The Knesset’s winter session

The Knesset session that will open right after Succot will undoubtedly spend most of its time in the process of dissolving itself.

Knesset 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The other day I received a digital copy of the World e-Parliament Report for 2012 – a massive 290-page document dealing with the current situation in parliaments around the world with regards to the prevalence of information and communications technologies (ICT) in parliaments.
The report, prepared by the Global Center for ICT in Parliament, in cooperation with the Inter Parliamentary Union (both of which the Knesset is an active participant), is based on the answers to a detailed questionnaire by close to 160 parliaments around the world, many of them parliaments from states that cannot be considered democratic by any standard, but nevertheless participate in the various international parliamentary forums, and quite a few of which (including those of the Arab states) receive assistance and advice from the UN Development Program on parliamentary issues and democracy.
ICT in parliaments relate to three main issues: ICT as a tool used by MPs to perform their parliamentary work; ICT as a means used by parliaments to manage their parliamentary activities in the plenum and committees, their administrative activities, and the management of the vast quantity of documents they produce; and ICT as a venue of contact between parliament and members of parliament on the one hand, and the general public, on the other.
AS EXPECTED, the report found enormous gaps between developed and developing countries, though apparently shortage of funds has slowed down the ICT revolution, even in the most advanced states.
While the report does not offer information on individual states, the answers of each state that filled the questionnaire are available from the staff of the Global Center for ICT in Parliament. Thus, for example in response to a query about “the paperless plenum” several years ago, the Knesset was informed that South Korea was most advanced in this sphere.
In general, the Knesset belongs to the top 10 percent of parliaments in terms of the sophisticated use of ICT.
Regarding the availability of information through the effective use of ICT, we have our strengths and our weaknesses, which are less a function of capabilities than of policies and budgets.
In terms of information, the Knesset is, to the best of my knowledge, the only parliament that does not only posit on its website the full minutes of its plenary debates within less than an hour after a speech is delivered, but also the full verbatim minutes of non-confidential committee meetings.
One of the weaknesses is that the Knesset is yet to complete a platform for presenting all stages of the legislative process, and most problematic of all, Israel’s complete book of laws and regulations for free public use.
While the Knesset website offers all the legislation passed in the last 13 years, if one wishes to download the most up-to-date version of a law one needs to enter one of the commercially run law websites. The Knesset is currently trying to overcome the obstacles towards changing this, but for the time being anyone wishing to download laws must spend a small fortune to do so.
WHILE THE work performed by Global Center for ICT in Parliament is extremely valuable, what it is engaged in is the easier part of international parliamentary cooperation, namely the exchange of technical information and know-how.
There are other international activities, performed by other organizations, such as the eradication of corruption and the increase of the participation of women in parliaments.
While all this is undoubtedly important, what seems to be neglected is serious international debate – both on institutional and academic levels – on the issue of the crisis in which many parliaments find themselves today, which has resulted in plummeting public trust in parliaments, even in the most advanced parliamentary and presidential democracies.
Part of the problem is public ignorance regarding what parliaments actually do, but the core of the problem is the absence of a clear definition of what parliaments are expected to do in the current day and age, and their effectiveness in performing these tasks.
The modern parliamentary system crystallized in the course of the 19th century, and the problematic inter- War years of the 20th Century.
Though there have been many developments in such spheres as the technicalities of how parliaments actually function, the ethical and legal norms that Members of Parliament are expected to abide by, and transparency, hardly anyone has addressed the issue of whether it is not time to change the balance between the legislative authority and the executive authority in the democratic state, and to define the job of the MP. Indeed, there is no definition of the MP’s job in any country! In the UK, for example, there have been calls in recent years to define the MP’s job since it has been observed that many MPs are acting, to a growing extent, as ombudsmen for their constituents, while neglecting most other aspects of what is thought to be the job of parliamentarians.
In Israel, on the other hand, the excessive growth of privately initiated legislation, and the Government’s attempt to fight the phenomenon, inter-aliya by means of the Economic Arrangements Law, are a different reason for the need for the definition of jobs and tasks. In fact, most of the attempts to define the job of the MK have come from the High Court of Justice that is occasionally called upon to interpret various articles in the MKs’ Immunity Law relating to their job.
The Knesset session that will open right after Succot will undoubtedly spend most of its time in the process of dissolving itself towards new elections, and pass as much last-minute legislation as possible. Thus it is quite unlikely that, even if the will existed, it will find the time to deal with fundamental reforms of the sort mentioned above.
But why don’t the various international parliamentary forums start addressing them?
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.