From Iceland — A Year In Alþingi: Two MPs, Birgitta Jónsdóttir And Vigdís Hauksdóttir, Reflect

A Year In Alþingi: Two MPs, Birgitta Jónsdóttir And Vigdís Hauksdóttir, Reflect

Published July 21, 2015

A Year In Alþingi: Two MPs, Birgitta Jónsdóttir And Vigdís Hauksdóttir, Reflect
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Art Bicnick

After a long and tumultuous year, Iceland’s parliament, Alþingi, has finished its last session and its members are now in summer recess. Despite possessing a clear majority, the governing Independence Party/Progressive Party coalition has had a hard time passing their propositions. This hasn’t stopped them from being at the centre of controversy on numerous occasions.

Some of these include the Minister for Foreign Affairs seemingly single-handedly withdrawing Iceland’s EU application, the previous government’s master plan for nature conservation and energy use being circumvented to make new areas dammable, and emergency legislation being passed to ban nurses from striking (shortly before the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage).

The past year has also seen the government’s support plummet, with the most recent polls showing the Independence and Progressive Parties measuring at 23.8% and 10.6% respectively. Meanwhile, the Pirate Party, which has been a very vocal opposition party, has seen a massive rise in popularity, measuring in at 33.2%, 1.2% lower than the two government parties combined.

The public has also shown its disapproval in action this past year, with the “Jæja” movement attracting thousands of people to protest by Alþingi in November, urging the government to show humility and respect for the pillars of democracy. Subsequent protests went further in their demands, calling for the government’s resignation.

Indeed, a lot has gone on over the past year. In an attempt to make some sense of it all, we reached out to Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the Pirate Party’s captain, and Vigdís Hauksdóttir, chair of Parliament’s Budget Committee and one of the Progressive Party’s best-known MPs. Both are in their sixth year of Parliament, and although their accounts of this past session are very different, they agree that it has not been a good year.

A Year In Alþingi: Two MPs Reflect -Gabríel Benjamin

Hi Vigdís. What is your perception of the parliamentary year that’s coming to a close?

The ruling parties were very optimistic at the start of the year, as we didn’t expect parliament to get stuck in partisan warfare and become completely dysfunctional—which it did. My feeling is that the former government parties, the Left-Greens and Social Democrats, are still sore about their poor results in the last elections, and that they’ve resorted to playing a political game that revolves around delaying everything for as long as possible.

Instead of actually talking about the proposals presented before parliament, where the coalition government has a majority rule, they’ve abused all the parliamentary programmes to put things off. They’ve been asking for many of the big matters to be delayed until the next session, which I don’t get the point of, except for them to be able to filibuster them once again.

You don’t feel like parliament has passed much legislation?

No, not at all. When the opposition has spent multiple days talking about the parliamentary president’s order of business, like it has, you’ve gone from their filibustering to their rants.

What were the big topics this past parliamentary session?

I think one of the biggest issues was the 2015 budget, which got a lot of attention in the budget committee. We managed to balance the budget, and the legislation passed through parliament well before Christmas. Parliament has also worked together across party lines to phase out the capital controls, and I’m proud to say we’ve got two bills to that effect ready to be brought to the floor.

The other big issue has been one that the budget committee tackled regarding public spending. It started with the previous government, three or four years ago, and now we’re working on it. We’ve looked to Sweden’s governance for examples of how to make public companies more efficient. The last legislation passed on the matter is twenty years old, and is in dire need of an update. The main goal of the proposed legislation is to make the public sector more disciplined. We enjoyed a good dialogue with the opposition members of the committee, but then in June they all bailed out. It’s a big disappointment, to see politics get in the way of such an important matter.

There was also another big event that happened during this government’s reign, and that is the Jæja protests.

What were they?

The November protests. What are your thoughts on them?

I don’t really know what people were protesting, it seemed like a mixed bunch. I looked at them from parliament and tried to find something they were united on, from their signs and such, but I didn’t see anything. Having said that, I have nothing against people using their legally guaranteed right of protesting.

Now that we are at the end of this parliamentary session, what do you think of it?

I would have liked to see more matters of national interest get passed. It’s a shame to see how long it’s taken the 2013 budget to get settled. It was brought out of the committee in April, and parliamentary procedures clearly state that such matters need to be approved in a timely fashion. It’s late by several months, and instead of going to the floor, it’s been held hostage by stalling tactics. It goes to show how even procedure and laws on filibustering aren’t respected by the opposition.

What effect does such a delay have?

None in particular, except that MPs are breaking their own laws. It also delays the whole administrative process. What I want to state is that this is without principle, to not let matters through that are legally time sensitive. I don’t want to criticise filibustering, but it can’t ever be done without the right principles behind it.

A Year In Alþingi: Two MPs Reflect -Gabríel Benjamin

Hi Birgitta. What is your perception of the parliamentary year that’s coming to a close?

I would say it was complete chaos, with battles on every front. Everything was incredibly poorly organised, a lot of big matters arrived late from the government—we are far behind our schedule because Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson brought his capital control proposals forward so late in the year.

When the year started, I was very positive, but then Vigdís Hauksdóttir, Þorsteinn Sæmundsson or Jón Gunnarsson came in and started winding everyone up, and it just makes you feel mad. People came in refreshed and ready to work together, but then it just turned into one heated argument after another.

What were the big topics this past parliamentary session?

There were three big topics. The first had to do with the State’s fight with job market and banning of strikes, which were rushed through parliament. The second was the legal amendments to the master plan, which was a very peculiar way to go passing such controversial laws—the government should rather have been done through legislation. And the third had to do with the Minister of Foreign Affairs sending a letter to the EU to withdraw our application to the union, circumventing parliament after his previous proposal to do just that had failed.

More important than any of these individual topics—although I would have liked to oppose each of them myself—is how they’re an affront to the principles of parliament and democracy.

It’s bizarre to look at the government’s agenda. It includes a lot of topics that the government parties can’t agree on between themselves, such as the proposed Nature Pass or solutions for the housing market. We need to come up with some long-term solutions for these matters that everyone can agree on.

On a more positive note, a cross-partisan committee has been working on improving laws regarding foreigners, and being a part of the committee has been incredibly rewarding. We currently have very flawed legislation, and with the help of specialists we’ve been coming up with a better framework. I wish we could work together on more important matters like this.

You’ve been a very vocal in saying that the parliamentary system is broken. What do you mean by that?

I’m very frustrated with how these broken systems get in the way of progress, whether it is in parliament with its procedures, or the systems governing the establishment. The constitution is completely obsolete and isn’t in accordance with the informal social contract that we as a nation live by.

I own a Macintosh SE, which is an ancient machine. It still runs, but I can’t just put the newest Mac OS onto it and expect it to work. It’s the same with our governing systems; we need to develop new systems that work together.

In my six years working in parliament, I haven’t seen any real change. I’ve hated seeing people dig into their trenches, acting terribly, and being disorganised. Even when I started in 2009, when we were facing an impossible position, people took to arguing instead of sitting down together and trying to face what was in front of us.

So when the opposition stalls and starts using filibustering tactics, people should come together and find a compromise; it’s the only viable solution.

Now that we are at the end of this parliamentary session, what do you think of it?

I think everyone is looking forward to not seeing each other’s face for a while [laughs].

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