Thursday, November 24, 2011

How it should be done

I've ranted before about democracy and foreign policy and the way governments (including our own) use secrecy around trade negotiations to lie to us about what they are putting on the table, sell us out, and advance deals which we would never let them agree to if they had to do it openly. New Zealand has particular problems here because of a constitutional tradition which explicitly excludes any democratic input into foreign policy. It is the queen government who makes treaties and wages war, not Parliament. In a supposed democracy, the people are excluded from some of the most important decisions it can make.

(That "correction" there BTW is to show how the process evolved, with a simple devolution from the monarch to her Ministers. Which may have made sense in the eighteenth century, but does not sit well in a 21st-century democracy with an MMP Parliament which can and should act as a check and balance on the executive).

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, they're showing us how it ought to be done. Their government is currently considering whether to join the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, the US-driven treaty designed to inflict American-style intellectual property laws (such as the hated s92A) on the rest of the world. But to do so, they require the permission of their Parliament. Which has just said that it will not even consider the matter unless all negotiation texts and advice on them are published:

A few weeks ago, the Dutch House of Representatives’ committee of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation requested the ACTA negotiation texts (the earlier versions of ACTA). The minister of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, Maxime Verhagen, sent the texts to parliament, adding a non disclosure obligation. In debates, Members of Parliament may not refer to the documents, nor quote from them.

Sunday, Bits of Freedom sent a letter to the committee, asking the committee not to accept the secrecy.

Committee member Kees Verhoeven (D66) proposed a message from the committee to the minister that no substantive treatment of any ACTA document can be made without publication of all relevant documents and above all that the committee can discus all documents in public. According to experts, the treaty has major implications for Dutch legislation (eg on copyright and Internet freedoms) and the House can’t at the moment consult experts nor can it inform the public about ACTA’s consequences, since ACTA is partly confidential. For this reason, the committee also requests the minister not to take irreversible steps, neither in Europe and nor in the Netherlands, in terms of ACTA. And towards the commission itself, the proposal to temporarily withdraw all ACTA related documents from the agenda until the minister discloses all documents.

Bits of Freedom reports a majority in the Dutch House of Representatives (D66, PVV, GroenLinks, SP and PvdA) adopted the proposal.

As a result, the Dutch Parliament will be able to have a real debate about whether this treaty is in their interests. And the Dutch people will be able to read the relevant documents, make up their minds for themselves, and punish their politicians if they get it wrong.

That's how a real democracy does foreign policy. We could do a lot worse than adopt the Dutch model.