At the first meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, Justice Minister and committee chairwoman Tzipi Livni announced that she would work to promote transparency in the committee’s discussions and decisions. The way ministers vote on bills that influence all our lives is not a state secret, she said. But she qualified her words by saying she needs to examine the legal aspects of this initiative.
Government transparency is certainly praiseworthy. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is one of the most important government committees. It decides which bills the government will support and which it will object to. In practice, if the committee objects to a certain bill, its fate is sealed: The coalition’s automatic majority is certain to block it.
Yet the committee keeps no minutes and no records of its votes. Thus it is impossible to know which ministers supported or opposed a specific bill, and what their reasons were. Even the final tally of the votes are kept secret.
The Basic Law on the Government states that discussions held by the cabinet and its committees, except on matters of security or foreign affairs, should be open unless a decision to the contrary is made. But in practice, the discussions of ministerial committees are not open to the public. Most do not keep minutes, and the ministers’ votes are not recorded by name − if there is a record of the vote at all.
The secrecy of cabinet discussions is accepted in most democratic countries. In England, Canada and New Zealand, for instance, cabinet discussions are exempt from those countries’ Freedom of Information laws. There, it is accepted that the minutes of cabinet meetings are released only decades later.
Such an approach promotes free discussion within the cabinet. But we shouldn’t go overboard in expanding this confidentiality. Decisions by cabinets and their committees are published all over the world.
In 2009, the Movement for Freedom of Information asked the Ministerial Committee for Legislation to publicize its minutes, including how the ministers voted and what reasons they gave for their votes. Several ministers expressed support for the change, but the committee held a discussion and voted it down. Because of its secrecy, we don’t even know who voted against and why.
Today, the committee has 13 members, some of whom object to publicizing government discussions. As a result, Livni has her work cut out for her. But her initiative is worthy not only of being accepted, but of being expanded. The cabinet would do well to promote open and accessible government by publishing the minutes of all its meetings, as Knesset committees do, as long as there is no fear of harming state security or foreign relations.
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