From Iceland — The Constitutional Committtee

The Constitutional Committtee

Published August 2, 2011

The Constitutional Committtee

Perhaps one of the most important results of the 2009 Pots and Pans Revolution was the notion that Iceland’s constitution—more or less a copy/paste job from Denmark—needed serious reworking. The project is beginning to reach a conclusion now, as the 25-member Constitutional Committee is, at the time of this writing, preparing to submit its first draft. So, what do we have in store? Here are a few of the more major changes proposed.
The Church And State
Perhaps one of the most significant changes to the constitution regards the possible separation of church and state. At last count, about 74% of Icelanders favour the idea, influenced in part by a recent sex scandal cover-up that implicates the former and current Bishop of Iceland.
But the Constitutional Committee has taken a more cautious approach to the matter. In Article 19 of the eighteenth iteration of the constitutional draft (the most current one at this point), the Committee specifically states that parliament may decide to initiate a referendum on the matter.
Committee member Illugi Jökulsson, speaking to Vísir, said last June, “It was our conclusion to head in that direction right away.” He added that while the committee discussed the pros and cons of separation of church and state, the one conclusion they came to was that in the end, the question would have to be answered in a referendum.
“It’s a matter that means a great deal to people,” Illugi said. “Whether people have strong opinions on faith or strong opinions on atheism, people are dead serious that we must respect both sides, and we intend to try as best we can to resolve the matter with as much satisfaction to all involved as possible.”
Government Transparency
Another concern that arose from the collapse of the economy was the notion that there is a lack of access to information about what the government actually is up to. It is a lack of transparency, many contend, that contributes to nepotism and general corruption. To this end, the Constitutional Committee has included an article on transparency, which states that all government documents shall be made available for public view, within reason. Thus, the article does allow for limits on public access to government information, in that access “need not go farther than necessary to preserve the normal functions of government,” which, granted, is pretty open to interpretation.
The committee has also recommended the creation of an independent parliamentary supervisory committee, which would overlook every aspect of the legislative process. This committee would also assess how members of parliament defended or fought for their own interests. The proposal recommends as well that members of parliament not be allowed to have any other type of employment, either public or private, while in office.
Protection Of Natural Resources
The draft also lays down some pretty specific guidelines with regard to our country’s natural resources. Specifically, Article 34 of the draft states that any land that isn’t private land is public land. As such, it cannot be sold to a private party, directly or indirectly.
The significance of this article cannot be overstated. It essentially means that private companies such as Magma Energy would not, for example, be able to conduct geothermal exploration by drilling at such natural pearls as Kerlingafjöll, as it seemed they were itching to do earlier this year.
Anyone who followed Icesave—and how fun was that, eh?—will recall just how heated and contentious the debate over this agreement became in the run-up to the national referendum. As it is, any bill that the President does not sign into law is put up for referendum. That would change, with conditions, if Article 67 makes it into the new constitution.
According to that article, laws regarding the budget, international obligations, taxes and citizenship would not be allowed to be put up for referendum. Icesave covers two of those, but there are greater implications: there is still a strong force within the Leftist-Green Party—which shares the ruling coalition with the EU-minded Social Democrats—to withdraw Iceland from NATO. The matter, many have contended, should be put up for public referendum. Paradoxically, as a NATO country, Iceland has numerous international obligations within that organisation, so if this article were to pass, such a referendum would possibly be impossible.
At this point it remains to be seen whether our elected representatives vote to increase transparency, limit their power, and blunt the populist cause du jour that is the referendum, but stay tuned. 

A Symbol Of Hope

Artist Nikhil Kirsh Talks About His Painting Of The Constitutional Committee
It’s not every morning that an artist wakes up and decides, “You know what would be great? Doing portraits of government appointees.” But artist Nikhil Kirsh did exactly that, predominantly for ideological reasons.
“When I found out about the constitutional committee,” he told me, “I just immediately saw the finished painting in my head. It’s like that with me—when I get an idea, I see it done, and then it’s just a run to the finish line.”
But why paint the Constitutional Committee?
“Beforehand, I had learned about The Movement [a recent Icelandic political party derived from the country’s activist base]. I don’t know much about Icelandic politics, but I met them, and felt I connected with them. But I was in the mood to do something truly epic. I think the people picked to be on the constitutional committee represent a pretty good symbol of hope.”
Logistically, painting the committee was a bit complicated. Kirsh explained that he had to photograph different portions separately, as not all members of the committee were available at the same time, and juggling the varying schedules stretched out photographing the subjects over a period of three weeks.
And his impressions of the committee as a whole?
“Everyone I spoke to seemed committed to what they were doing,” he said. “They were working together on a project that they believe is socially important. Their convictions are pinpointed on a collective goal.”
Kirsh also says he has his fingers crossed to get his painting into parliament. “I think a portrait of this eclectic group would look great alongside the portraits of old men they have hanging on the walls,” he says with a laugh.
Until the painting makes it into parliament, you can see it yourself—along with his other works of Icelanders—at Gallery Fold on 20 August.

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