No More Secrets From the Icelandic People

Now that Iceland's President Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson has refused to approve the legislation resolving the IceSave dispute with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, the Icelandic people will--for the first time since independence in 1944--directly exercise the nation's sovereign power in a referendum in March to approve or reject the proposed settlement.

It will be essential, in making this important decision, for the Icelandic people to have immediate and complete access to all of the information used by the government in arriving at its decision to approve the settlement. This must include the legal advice provided by outside law firms, strategic considerations from Iceland's foreign ministry, estimates of the costs of compliance, and internal documents from Landsbanki reflecting arrangements with Icelandic, British, and Dutch banking authorities.

The Icelandic government has a long history of concealing information from its citizens. The bank secrecy laws have been used to conceal what many suspect to be questionable dealings between the banks and its large clients. For example, late last year the Minister of Commerce and Trade, Gylfi Magnússon, who is in charge of regulating the banks, said, in response to a request from an MP about the debt status of the Icelandic fisheries, that bank secrecy laws inhibited him from finding out or investigating how the banks - even after they had been put on government life support - had dealt with some of their large customers, who received what deals, who had large debts been written off or frozen, etc.

In recent years Iceland has built numerous aluminum smelters using the country's environmentally friendly hydroelectric and geothermal energy However, despite the millions of dollars committed to these projects, the Icelandic government has never disclosed the price of the electricity it is selling to these industrial behemoths.

However, now that we are being asked to exercise our sovereign power directly, these restrictions on access to information must give way. Any confidentiality agreements in the government's favor must now be seen as including the entire nation. Any laws that limit access to bank information to regulators must be expanded to cover all of us who must evaluate this issue.

There is among the Icelandic people a strong tendency to listen only to information that favors their interests, and to ignore or belittle contrary news. In the days since Ólafur Ragnar's surprising decision, most of the information from the Icelandic media strongly favors the position that Iceland is not legally obligated to provide a sovereign guarantee to foreign depositors, and that the consequences of rejection would not be severe. There is very little discussion of the merits of the British and Dutch position, or of the possibility that Iceland will be branded a pariah state. A bubble is being formed around the people similar to the one that surrounded George W. Bush, and we all know the quality of the decisions he made.

Foreign Minister Össur Skarphédinsson has indicated that British and Dutch authorities have various ways to collect what they see as due if the Icesave legislation is rejected in the referendum. We need to know exactly what those authorities have in mind. A recent article referred to legal opinions provided to the Icelandic government by the Mischon & Barton. We need to examine and compare those opinions with the legal opinions we heard this past weekend on Silfur Egils.

In 2008, when current Finance Minister Steingrímur J. Sigfússon was in the opposition, he expressed his dismay at the fact that he and the other Alþingi members not in the ruling coalition had to get their information from the newspapers.

He was absolutely right then about the need for all of the decision-makers to have access to all relevant information, and our need now is even greater. This is a highly technical matter involving matters about which most of us have little direct experience or personal knowledge, and the consequences of a wrong decision may adversely affect us for a generation.

Now that Iceland's ultimate decision-making power on this has been given to the people, the government's only role should be to ensure that we have access to all relevant information. Each one of us has the same right of access as the legislators did while they considered this bill. Anything less would make a mockery of the referendum and the Icelandic Constitution.