Thursday, September 29, 2011

Against secret treaties

The government has announced that it will be signing up to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement this weekend. Over on Red Alert Clare Curran responds by asking what we're signing up for. Its a good question. The treaty has been negotiated in secret, and only a few officials within MFAT (and now presumably Cabinet) are privy to its details. As for the rest of us, we've been excluded, kept in the dark like peasants while the government negotiates significant changes to our laws on copyright, access to goods, and access to medicines.

As I've argued before, this makes a mockery of the claim that the government is acting on our behalf. The foundation of democratic legitimacy is the consent of the governed. But how can the government claim its actions are legitimate, when it refuses to tell us what it is doing? And how can it claim that consent if we are not given a meaningful chance to refuse it?

The current way things are done allows the government to impose these deals on us as a fait accompli. They negotiate in secret, sign it, and then use the fact of that signature to justify ratification (and changes to New Zealand law), on the basis that refusing to do so would be breaking our word. This is an end-run around democracy, a relic of the monarchical era. And we should not tolerate it any longer.

Our government does not have the right to give our word without asking us first. It is that simple. Treaties must be made openly, with full public consultation, and voted on by Parliament before signature. Anything less than this is undemocratic.

Openness is treaty-making would be democratic. It would allow us to see what was being negotiated on our behalf, and make our consent meaningful. It would also allow us to properly judge our politicians and officials, decide whether they are truly representing our interests or selling us out, and allow us to hold them accountable if necessary. And that, I suspect, is precisely why those politicians and officials are so dead set against it.