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Denmark

 
11/05
2013

Citizens sign up against power abuse

Minister Bødskov shielding the political power from the outside

A proposed new Danish law on access to documents has caused close to a political uproar. More than 75 000 citizens have signed a petition against the law. Protesters will literally take to the streets in Copenhagen in a last attempt to prevent the law to be adopted by parliament.

 
Protesters gathering outside the Danish parliament May 15 may well face a futile fight int their effort to stop the new law. The centre-left government has already agreed with leading opposition parties liberal and conservatives on the main issues; including two central articles which have  made critics furious:
* Documents that may form a part of decisions by members of government shall not be accessible by definition.
The article (24) reads in an unofficial  translation: 
 "The right to access does not include internal documents containing information exchanged at a time when there is specific reason to believe that a minister has or will have a need for the advice from an civil service and assistance between:
1) A ministry department and its subordinate authorities.
2) Various ministries.”
The article is now known by the infamous title "Service to ministers - "Ministerbetjening" in Danish.
The title has been redacted by the present minister of Justice, Social Democrat Morten Bødskov but the content remains the same as in a previous proposal tabled by the former centre-right government.
 
Politician's clause
* Documents exchanged by the government and a chosen parliamentarians during pre-legislative negotiations shall not be accessible.
This article (27.2) is now know as the "politician's clause"
Taken together the two articles help to create an environment of enhanced secrecy at  the top level of administration and politics. Readers known to similar discussions in the EU would recognise this from the EU-commissions attempt to prolong the "time to think" for central institutions.
Although the proposed law does encompass transparency improvements on others fields such as access to databases and to documents held by local and regional authorities, the proposed curtail of the central powers has dominated the debate.
 
Far beyond
For long time these articles and their effect was a matter of dispute only between a limited groups of academics, journalists and politicians.
But for the last months the debate has been heated and reached out far beyond the circles of those already engaged in these rather technical aspects of administration and politics.
At the time of writing more than 75 000 citizens, and counting, has signed a petition against the proposed law.
The three parties in government, and the major parties in the opposition are now facing an increased oppositions from within their own ranks.
The youth branches of eight political parties in the parliament are amongst the critics calling for a withdrawal.
 
Refused 28 times
Adding to this storm the government has made some rather bleak attempt to defend the proposal.
Minister of Justice Morten Bødskov has repeatedly been asked to come up with one example of how the present law has been an hindrance for an efficient government as he claims it has, but has repeatedly refused to do so.
In a tv-interview for half an hour the minister avoided to give a straight answer to the very same question no less than 28 times.
At the same time critics have been able to show how political issues and scandals in recent times would not had come to the public's attention had the proposed law been in force.
Also it has been shown beyond doubts that politicians now in government themselves were fierce opponents of the infamous articles not more than a year ago, when an earlier version of the law was put forward by the then ruling government.
 
The bureaucrazy rules
So how come the politicians seem to refuse to bow in to critics, and even refuse to meet the criticism when challenged? When 16 ministers were asked by parliament to comment on the consequences of the law in their own fields the first week in May they did not meet up during questioning time, leaving it to Justice Minister Bødskov ta take the fire.
Besides psychological explanations of how politicians behave under pressure there might be an institutional answer to the question of why, and how come.
According to some of the critics the central politicians had already bowed in to demands of the top bureaucracy in the ministerial departments when they entered a pre-legislative agreement between themselves.
These negotiations were kept secret with no documents disclosed to the public thanks to a possibility established in the present law of not revealing notes on internal deliberations.
 
Not so nerdish after all 
Hence the proposed new law was in practise decided by central players with a heavy say to non-elected civili servants before being tabled to the parliament. And this very same law will make sure that similar processes can run even more smoothly in the future.
This is the perspective that makes critics accuse the government of acting in breach of fundamental principles for parliamentary democracy, such as the division of power.
This is also an explanation why a seemingly nerdish issue as paragraphs in a law in access to documents has drawn a broader attention than anticipated, and why protesters will gather outside the parliament.
Unless unexpected developments in the very last minute, Denmark will get a new law on access to document that will ring fence work done by a circle of central actors from the press and the public
The revision of the law leading to an increased black-out will at least take place in the spotlights put up by the media as well s by concerned citizens.
 
 
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Staffan Dahllöf

 
 
 

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