For those who know me in person, you know that I’m pretty much a government-wonk. Not in the “I care deeply about politics” sense, because I don’t. Generally, I think there are a lot of good people out there who do care about those things, and care deeply about the policy direction of various parties etc., but my policy interests are a lot more narrow. However, I do have very strong views about how things are implemented once a decision is taken as to direction, and most of my posts about government will have that as a running theme.
Take for example two very different articles about government and laws in today’s New York Times. The first, about Latvia of all places, reflects the decision that government works best when it is “by the people”. Political engagement at the grassroots level. In Latvia, because they had low political engagement by its citizens, they launched a rule — if a citizen gets 10K signatures on a proposal for legislators, their Parliament will look at it and consider it. Think of it as the deep deep deep deep backbencher option for a private member’s bill.
The plight of local dogs left tied up alone outdoors has long bothered Mr. Grunte, a soft-spoken father of two and a translator of technical documents. So in January he went online and, using ManaBalss.lv, a Latvian Web site whose name translates to “My Voice,” created a parliamentary bill to make the practice illegal in Latvia. “I’ve never done anything political before,” he said. “But this was very easy.”
With the help of ManaBalss, he has a chance to see his proposal enacted into law by the Latvian Parliament. Thanks to a parliamentary rule passed shortly after the opening of the ManaBalss site in 2011, initiatives that gather 10,000 signatures from citizens 16 or older must be taken up by Parliament. Signatures can be gathered online, where they are verified using the same transaction codes that Latvians use for online banking.
Two more ManaBalss initiatives, one about traffic law and another about who should pay for hepatitis C treatment, are under consideration in Parliament..
When I read an article like this, my mind starts raising in a bunch of different directions:
- Low citizen engagement, a lack of trust in government, so they need to find new ways to engage. I get it.
- It took an entrepreneur to set up and run the website? Doesn’t that strike anyone not only as ripe for abuse but also just reinforcing the lack of trust in government?
- It’s only 10K signatures to get Parliament to look at it, and e-signatures count? Maybe it’s because Latvia has only 2.5m people, but that seems like a pretty low threshold to tie up Parliament’s time with potentially ill-advised, ill-conceived, poorly-designed proposals;
- EC, Finland and Iceland are experimenting with doing the same…none of which are “western-style” democracies with similar views of the role of government as Canadians and Americans have, I wonder how portable it is; and,
- It’s hard to argue with results — frivolous ideas fall by the wayside pretty quick, but the support for the e-signature petitions has already passed Parliament as well as transparency regarding off-shore holdings, with consideration pending for how to and who should pay for Hep C treatments and revisions to traffic laws.
I’m doubtful it would work in Canada very well, unless it was equally scalable — perhaps 100K+ signatures, and as with Latvia, verified e-signatures to avoid simply signing up with fake email addresses and home addresses. Wouldn’t be hard to verify with Elections Canada or CRA data.
Then I read an article that takes a Western-style democracy and tosses the goals of due process and fair elections out the window, despite lots of legal protections in place. Meet Nelson L. Castro, NY assemblyman and informer on corruption in government. And, oh, yeah, he’s definitely guilty, not allegedly:
Since 2009, just nine months after he was elected to the Assembly, he had led a double life: simultaneously representing the West Bronx in the Legislature, and informing on his colleagues to state and federal prosecutors investigating public corruption.On Thursday, Mr. Castro abruptly said he would resign under a deal to avoid prosecution himself, after the United States attorney in Manhattan announced that his cooperation had led to bribery charges against Assemblyman Eric A. Stevenson, a fellow Democrat whose district adjoins that of Mr. Castro, as well as four other men.
Lawmakers are transfixed — and, in some corners, alarmed — by a situation that seems more Hollywood than Albany: a legislator working for years as a law enforcement mole, all the while introducing bills and casting votes like any other legislator.
Mr. Castro, 41, agreed to work with prosecutors after he was secretly indicted on three counts of perjury in the summer of 2009; the government claimed that in 2008, before he was elected, he lied during testimony he gave under oath during a lawsuit brought by a political rival who had accused him of election law violations. Almost immediately after he was notified of the sealed indictment, in August 2009, he began cooperating with the Bronx district attorney’s office; in 2011 he began working with the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Mr. Castro’s cooperation was apparently valuable enough that prosecutors kept from the public the fact that he had been indicted, allowing him twice to successfully run for re-election, in 2010 and 2012.
It is that last paragraph that bothers me horrendously. I get that corruption in government undermines the very fabric of the society that has been created. I get that it is an evil that comes as close to a form of treason as you can without actually endangering the national security of your country. But to combat that corruption by withholding information from the electorate (i.e. that he was indicted on perjury charges) which goes to the very credibility of the candidate for whom that electorate is casting votes, and to do it not only once, but twice? As Machiavelli said, one must always look to the means, and while I admire their end goal, the means in this case do almost as much harm.
But that’s just me apparently.