There is an old British adage about the frustrations of everyday life. “You wait an hour for a bus,” the saying goes, “and then three come along all at once.”
In the first week of April, after going over a year without passing a single bill, Lebanon’s expired Parliament reconvened and jolted the body politic into action. In total, parliamentarians confirmed over 70 bills in only a few days.
While this magazine agrees that action is certainly preferably to inaction, it is disconcerting that many of these bills only received a cursory analysis in a public forum.
As they rushed to push legislation through, numerous potentially important laws received fewer than 15 minutes deliberation in Parliament. When Executive interviewed Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon, he mentioned a new bill he personally pushed through that, while potentially positive, has had little analysis by civil society. Even those laws that pricked the public interest remain shrouded in mystery, leaving those whose businesses or lives will be heavily affected at best anxious and at worst infuriated. And with Parliament’s committees often fundamentally rewriting laws, the result is seemingly paradoxical situations such as we saw in early April when women’s rights movement KAFA took to the streets to protest against the passing of a law they had written the first draft of.
More worryingly still, many of these new laws are yet to be signed by President Michel Sleiman and so have not yet been published in the Official Gazette — the primary source for the public and civil society to review new legislation. In simple terms, it is impossible to say whether Parliament’s newfound efficiency is leading to the confirmation of dozens of long-needed bills or pushing through badly written laws that could harm the country. This is yet another issue of a chronic lack of transparency in Lebanon’s politics.
The current system only furthers the public’s fears that politicians have something to hide.
The country’s Parliament is notoriously closed to the public — major civil society organizations that help draw up legislation regularly have no idea about the status of those laws once they enter Parliament’s maze. Indeed, to get access to a draft law once it has entered the committee stage often requires personally going to a committee member’s office.
This must change. A bare minimum would be the establishment of a website that would allow people to track the status of all of the draft laws in Parliament. This would enable citizens to know who to hold to account when, as happens with alarming regularity, bills get surreptitiously changed. It would also enable the public (and media) to engage in reasoned debate over a draft law’s merits and shortcomings.
The technology is available and affordable. There is no longer any excuse for so little transparency. The current system only furthers the public’s fears that politicians have something to hide.