Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Politics Of Opacity: Spain's transparency bill

When he became mayor of Pollensa, Tomeu Cifre vowed that there would be greater transparency in respect of town hall affairs. The demand for increased transparency had grown during the time of the previous administration when  numerous issues cropped up that required explanation but were rarely if ever explained. The most vocal opposition party which led the call for greater transparency was the Alternativa per Pollença. Prior to the local election at which Cifre became mayor, the Alternativa had raised a motion which proposed a system of greater transparency at the town hall. The council rejected the motion. Among those who abstained in the vote were councillors from the mayor's party, the Partido Popular. The motion has never been revisited. Indeed, and despite the mayor's apparent conversion to the principle of transparency during the election period, accusations of a lack of transparency in Pollensa have dogged his administration.

It is unfair to single out Mayor Cifre or Pollensa town hall. Lack of transparency is everywhere in government - municipal, provincial, regional, national. It is the culture of government in Mallorca and the culture of government in Spain.

There are examples of transparency, such as Alcúdia posting detailed information regarding its financial position and certain procedures on the internet, but a degree is needed to interpret much of it. Town halls typically have councillors responsible for "citizenship and participation", but knowing exactly what participation means isn't always clear. It isn't transparent. It never is.

The culture of secrecy in public administration begins at the top of government and filters down to all levels. There is no freedom of information, there is no set of rules for good governance. Spain is known as being one of the most secretive if not the most secretive democracies in Europe. Though the juxtaposition of secretive with democracies is all but an oxymoron, it isn't wrong.

This secretiveness may be about to be broken down. Spain's transparency law has been following the tortuous path that typically has to be travelled in its parliament. Finally, it has come before the Senate. So, who knows how much longer it might all take. Its provisions, one is led to believe, include the release of reports that form the basis of drafts of legislation. There is to be a commission to oversee transparency with its president being elected by parliament and with its membership comprising representatives from bodies such as the data protection agency and the fiscal responsibility authority.

Which is all good stuff, one supposes. It's better than nothing and it may prove to be the first step in creating a political atmosphere and culture which isn't as prone as it is to keeping mum.

The secretiveness that exists equates not just to a lack of transparency but also to accountability and communicativeness. Prime Minister Rajoy is a classic example. Reticence may be excused on account of shyness but it might also be the product of something else. The very top of government should take the lead in bringing about an amelioration of this historical cultural secretiveness, but when the party at the top of government manages to wipe the hard discs of its former, incarcerated and accusatory former treasurer, one does have to wonder whether it is capable of doing so. 

But perhaps one is being too harsh on politicians. The Economy Circle of the great and good from Mallorca's business and professional worlds last year issued a report into the nature of democracy as it is practised in the Balearics. It made for uncomfortable reading. Lack of transparency and bad examples set by political parties (and these, where party funding is concerned, occur across Spain) were highlighted but so also was an apathy on behalf of society in general. In other words, society shrugs its shoulders or doesn't much care or just behaves in the same way as politicians do - not very well.

Will this transparency bill be any more than simply an exercise in paying lip-service to freedom of information? Possibly it will be and even its basic provisions should, one would hope, give grounds for believing that governments might actually explain things for once. We have a good example occurring right now in Mallorca where information would be useful. What, I would like to know, do the reports and research by the regional government into the introduction of trilingual teaching contain? Who drew them up? What was said about the time frame for implementation?  

There again, it is all very well demanding transparency and information, but if there are no reports or research then there isn't much point.

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