MaltaToday | 18 May 2008 | Healing politics

OPINION | Sunday, 18 May 2008

Healing politics


Last Saturday evening I had a very interesting discussion with young University students and lecturers about young people and politics. They find our politics too partisan and the two big parties too stifling. They feel that our political parties have become unprincipled and opportunistic vote-grabbing machines. They criticise our education system as being too standardized, drills students for exams rather than cultivating their thinking skills and is bent on instilling obedience and conformity in our students rather than encouraging them to be creative, enterprising and risk takers. They would like our children and teenagers to be educated about democracy and politics in the classroom. They would like intellectuals to get involved in politics and raise the level of debate and improve the quality of our policy making.
We also discussed the need to have active citizenship and increase the role of civil society in our public life so that more citizens go beyond being mere passive spectators or fanatical supporters in the arena of our gladiatorial politics. The young people present at the discussion stressed that the health of democracy depends on involvement, transparency and accountability.
The challenges for all modern democracies is how to make citizens feel that they are involved in the policy making process. It is not enough that we ask citizens to vote every five years and then to leave policy making to the policy makers. We know that the policy making process is influenced by lobbyists and interest groups. So how do we ensure that the voice of the citizen is heard as much as that of the lobbyist and the voices of those who seem to have readier and easier access to the policy makers?
We need a Freedom of Information Act that will increase the transparency and accountability of Government. I suggest that we study the UK Freedom of Information Act as the most recent legislation in the EU. Scandinavian countries and the US also have a Freedom of Information Act worth looking at to see what we can learn from their experience. The benchmark of a good Freedom of Information Act is that it seeks the greatest transparency, except for those areas that jeopardise national security.
A Freedom of Information Act will ensure that citizens have ready access to their personal files held by government. All official meetings between ministers and advisers should be part of a Freedom of Information Act. Citizens need to understand how policy emerges. All memos for advisers, client groups and policy advocates should be made available.
We also need a Whistleblower Act. It was a very brave young American Sergeant who felt the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib needed to be exposed. The photos of sexual humiliation and the attack with dogs were eventually all posted on the internet and became world news. The young soldier was criticised on whistleblowing on his comrades and also accused of putting the US War in Iraq in danger. Yet that soldier felt that the torture at Abu Ghraib was undermining all the United States had stood for.
The case of Abu Ghraib provides a means of understanding the contribution of whistleblowing to issues of good governance. We know that power corrupts and governments are involved in violating and undermining the rights of their citizens.
The rule of Law is therefore important for the making of democracy and it is important to emphasise that no one is beyond the law. Progressive politics therefore recognises the dangers caused to by those in government who abuse the rule of law. Whistleblowers who act in the public interest should therefore be given protection against victimisation against the threat of losing their livelihoods or being labelled as unpatriotic. Increasingly organisations all over the world are becoming involved in contracts with their employees that ensure employees are unable to report as what they judge to be endangering the public interest. Examples of illegal pollution of water system waste disposal of materials events that degrade the environment are often not reported and yet these events do put the lives of innocent bystanders at risk.
We therefore need a legislative framework that allows people to report such events to an independent body that would allow the case to be investigated and at the same ensure the privacy and confidentiality of the person reporting the incident. The protection of the public interest should always be paramount.
An effective Freedom of Information Act and a Whistleblowers’ Act might help the young people I met last Saturday start believing again in democracy and politics.

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