Presidential elections are coming up at the end of this month, and it’s arguably been the most contentious one in Iceland’s history. Among the topics that have come up in public discussion has been the question of whether the office itself has become obsolete.
While I think it’s interesting to consider, it limits the focus to the Office of the Presidency, when I’d argue that the entire government body should be regularly reviewed within the context of our modern lives.
One of the more striking things that occurred to me during my brief time in parliament was how small a role the actual halls of parliament play in the crafting of legislation. In fact, I’d argue that the continued existence of parliament is based in part on some misconceptions as to what parliament actually does.
Contrary to popular belief, parliament does not create a lot of bills. Rather, almost all the most important bills come from the ministries. Work groups assembled by the ministries get together to examine and discuss a particular subject, eventually crafting a bill, which is then submitted to the floor of parliament. That’s where a great many of our laws come from.
But even after being submitted to parliament, the fine-tuning of a bill does not take place in parliament, either. Rather, it takes place in committee, the chairperson of which answers to the ministry from whence the bill came. It’s in committee that special interest groups are invited to share their input, which is usually submitted electronically, and where committee members shape the bill into a more viable form.
So what is it that parliament actually does, you ask? They discuss and/or argue about bills—usually repeating the same arguments they made in committee—and then vote on them. That’s it in a nutshell. We are a nation of about 320,000 people. Surely, we can discuss/argue about bills—and then vote on them—ourselves, right?
I think we can. I submit that we abolish parliament altogether. I think that doing so would not only increase transparency and democracy; the functions of government would also not be too much different from what they are now. If I had to give this new structure a name, I suppose it could be called “ministerial democracy.” So here’s my general idea of what a parliament-free Iceland could look like:
People vote for ministers and their alternates. This includes voting for a prime minister, who would serve largely the same function as before, only without appointing the cabinet. Ministries would still assemble work groups for crafting bills, only these would be posted online for people to discuss and argue about. After a nominal period of time, the bill would be referred back to the work group from whence it came, where they would take the discussion into consideration, re-work the bill, and then post it again. Just as a parliamentary bill goes to committee three times before a final vote, the posted bill would be re-worked three times by its work group before being put to an electronic vote for approval or rejection.
Realistically, there would have to be a way to conduct a discussion on said bill, and vote on it, in an orderly and civilised fashion. People could be required to register on a ministry website in order to participate, but they could register for as many ministries as they want—just as members of parliament are often in many different committees. Not every single bill posted by the ministries would be subject to requiring a national majority for passage. In fact, most of them could simply require say, a two-thirds majority of registered users of a ministry’s website for passage. Larger issues—such as joining the EU—would, however, be subject to national referendum.
Certainly, there are other questions that arise here—for example, could “ordinary” citizens submit bills of their own, and how? Would there still be a president? Would there even be political parties? And there would be practical aspects of this idea that would need fine-tuning, but these could be worked out on a trial basis: perhaps a ministry could craft and post a “sample bill” on its website to see how it goes, and work out the procedural kinks.
But would our esteemed members of parliament, many of who have hoisted their political careers aloft with their zeppelin-like egos, allow for such an experiment? Whether they like it or not, I’d say the time has come to give it a chance. Icelanders want direct democracy, and if there’s one country in the world where it can be achieved, it’s here.