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‘The system is a reflection of who we are’: an interview with Birgitta Jónsdóttir

“It's not only about us versus the system. The system is really us.” As Iceland’s radical Pirate party approaches the gates of power, we speak to its figurehead Birgitta Jónsdóttir.

lead Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Ashish Ghadiali: What is happening in Iceland right now? It’s really weird, right? You’ve got a prosperous nation, the economy has recovered out of a terrible collapse, and suddenly, led by the Pirate Party, you've got this most radical reformist government within an inch of power…  

Birgitta Jónsdóttir: So, Icelanders are 333,000, and this means that you reach critical mass about things much quicker. Truth and lies become the norm much quicker. Xenophobia or tolerance become the norm much quicker in small communities. Anyone that's lived in a village knows what I'm talking about. So in the wake of the collapse, Icelanders realised that everything they had put their trust in had failed them. Not just politicians. Also media and academia and so forth, and there was this sort of tremendous shock, anger, grief.

Then we went into the austerity that you would do in an IMF programme. We were the first prosperous country to go into that programme for a long time. And that meant that the left-wing government that was elected to clean up the mess was under tremendous pressure and they did lots of things right, but they did a lot of things wrong, because they basically wanted to do everything. So people started to distrust them as well. Then Icelanders decided to vote again for the parties that were responsible for the mess. And we were lucky enough to get all the tourists and new fish that made us prosper in spite of the fact that we were coming out of a very heavy collapse.

One has to question the masters who calculate everything.

It is important that people understand that because we are so few, our economy is like a little pond. When you throw a pebble in a little pond you see the ripples. It naturally has an impact on the surface and also below. When you throw a pebble into a big lake you don't see anything. That is like the bigger countries. So everything that happens here has much more visual impact than in other countries and when all of a sudden you get lots of tourists, even if it doesn’t compare to other countries in numbers, it’s a lot compared to how many would come before to Iceland. That’s what’s happening and it’s actually creating a bit of a bubble in property. 

Then we've got the mackerel coming in, and that is also making us more affluent, but at the same time, because of the way the tax havens are used by the so-called one percenters of Iceland, and the way we have allowed big corporations, like aluminium giant Alcoa, to abuse a loophole in the laws and not pay any taxes, it means we don't get our fair share from collective resources like fish and energy, and that means our healthcare and our education system and the roads are all crumbling even though we're prosperous. So one has to question the masters who calculate everything, that calculate what is a prosperous country and what is not, on which values that is being calculated. 

AG: So within that context, what has been the journey of the Pirates, from essentially a protest group to an organisation very close to forming government?

BJ: Well, it's so wild, all of it. None of us expected to be in a position of having so much trust from people in our society when we founded the party. Our main focus was to continue with the work, facilitating direct democracy and to really bring awareness about the importance of human rights and the cyber. We've just been lucky with the people that got into parliament. We were only 3. But we still managed to do lots of stuff. Eventually, people started to say we will vote for the Pirates because we can't trust any of the other parties. And then we started to get all these people that wanted to join us. All of a sudden we went from just having a few volunteers to, you know, hundreds of people that wanted to be part of it. 

AG: This was before the Panama Papers?

BJ: Yes. 

AG: So what was driving that?

BJ: Okay, that was really interesting. You can see if you look at the curves where we started to go up in the polls. We were usually around 10% in the polls, and then all of a sudden we started to go up and it just goes up and up and up and up until like 30-something, and that was the day the foreign affairs minister decided to bypass not only the nation, but also the parliament. The governmental parties had promised a national referendum to find out whether the nation wanted to carry on with the EU application or not. He [the Foreign Affairs minister] had tried to take it into the parliament, but his attempt was not very successful. He felt that he would draw too much attention to the issue, I don't know. It was just very weird, the behaviour of the government and how they tried to justify this bypass of parliament and the nation, so he just went on his own to Brussels to say we are no longer applying. And that created a lot of fury. And that also raised people's awareness to the fact that if we had actually had our new, crowd-sourced constitution, he could not have done this without consulting with the nation.

We want to draw on the wisdom of the masses.

The Pirate Party doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. We have been very clear that we want to draw on the wisdom of the masses. And we want to make sure the general public has access to information, so that they are better equipped to make informed decisions. I think this is critical. If you campaign for direct democracy, then you have to make sure that you have an independent institution that actually provides non-biased information, that drafts the questions. There is so much we can learn from Brexit because that entire campaign was allowed to run its course with all this false information and there seemed to be no way to provide a factual critical mass awareness about what the EU was. It was scary. You were reading the news the day after and there were all these people going to Google to search for ‘What is the EU?’. So people were not making an informed decision. 

AG: Can you talk me through the proposed new constitution? What is this new constitution that the pirates are going to bring into effect?

BJ: In the wake of the crisis, there were four demands, and everybody knows about three of them. One was that the government would resign. One was that the central bank managers would resign. The third was that the financial regulatory board would resign, and the fourth one was that we would get a new constitution. The current constitution is a draft that the Danish king gave Icelanders when we got independence from Denmark in1944, and it was always a draft, and based on the Danish Kingdom. That 's why we have a president that is like a monarch rather than like the US president. The parliament has tried to change this for 70 years but it's not been capable of doing it, because when you have people in power taking and making decisions about diminishing their power, of course it's impossible.

So there was this demand that the nation would get to write it's own constitution. This of course had been in the debate for many years but it came very strong to the surface in the wake of the crisis. And so the newly elected government put it into process. First, there was actually an NGO that had a meeting where a thousand people were invited to come and talk about the values that they wanted to have in a constitution. Then there was another meeting where people were randomly selected from our national registry. One thousand people from all over Iceland came and had a cafe-style debate about what they felt had to be in the new constitution. And then all of this data was taken to the other special committee, and they put together two different scenarios that were later handed to the constitutional parliament.

Anybody could run to become a member of the constitutional parliament. We had 5012 people running, so many normal people that were just passionate about our constitutional rights. Everybody thought that it would just be academics but it wasn’t. And so, in four months, they drafted this new constitution that was then handed over to the parliament. Parliament took it to a referendum that was similar to Brexit, a non-binding referendum because we don't have binding referendums yet. (We will once we have this new constitution.) The majority of Icelanders said yes, we want this draft to be the backbone of our new constitution. Then we had it for a year in the parliament and in the last days it was obvious that the government did not have the majority to take it through and they caved in, and we still don't have it.

In March last year, when we started to go up in the polls, I said in a widely broadcasted news hour that I wanted to challenge other parties, that we would put this as the first bill of a new parliament and the parties that would be willing to do this should form some sort of coalition. I said that we should start to work together on a plan so that people could know what they're getting in the next elections. Because I really think it is important whenever you are trying to normalise something that you have to start to talk about it at times when it still seems weird. I had already gotten answers from all the party leaders and they had said they are willing to look into it and now we are having negotiations before the elections about putting this as the first bill.

This is a massively inclusive new approach to running Iceland.

There are so many brilliant new things in this new constitution. If 2% of Icelanders put forward a request to put an item into process in the parliament, they can. It will be a constitutional right. If 10% of Icelanders request or put forward a demand to put a bill on the agenda, the parliament has to do it. Parliament could put their own bill up against it, but then it would have to go to a referendum. This is a massively inclusive new approach to running Iceland and of course there are provisions in it about net neutrality, freedom of information, the constitutional right of a nation to benefit from the profit of our natural resources. It's probably not perfect, nothing's perfect. But if there are errors in it, then fine. they can be fixed later. 

AG: Can you tell me more about what you mean by direct democracy?

BJ: Direct democracy is just accessibility of the general public to have influence on bills, to draft policies, to have the ability to, for example, recall representatives who are shown to have been unethical, or done something that people are outraged with. They have that in California, in Canada I think. We still have two ministers in Iceland that had accounts in the Cayman Islands: the tax minister and the interior minister, the minister for justice. There was no way for us to fire them.

There are many different forms of direct democracy. You can have direct democracy in your community which I think is very important, and I often say to people, when we're talking about democracy, do you know your neighbour? If you don’t, all direct democracy and community building starts in your neighbourhood, so why don't you go over and say hi, and introduce yourself, as an exercise in direct democracy – because it's not only about us versus the system. The system is really us. They system is a reflection of who we are.

Democracy is work. It's sort of insane to think that 63 people can fix everything.

John Lennon was talking about this in an interview a long, long time ago, around the campaign, “War is over”. He basically said, war is over, if you want it, not if they want it. If I want it, the war is over. He was talking about this tendency of looking at governments, you know, big daddy, and you can blame father if everything goes wrong instead of starting to take on the responsibility that comes with living in a democracy. Democracy is work. It's sort of insane to think that 63 people can fix everything.

AG: You've outlined that actually it was the government U-turn on EU membership coupled with the work that you had been doing on the new constitution that led to your rise. Actually once the Panama Papers revelations were out there and that protest movement was mobilised, actually your popularity began to drop. As of one or two weeks ago, the ruling Independence party pulled back against you in the polls. It's still very much in the balance. In terms of the narrative that I think is out there, I think many people think that the Panama Papers revelation was synonymous with the rise of the Pirate Party. What happened actually?

BJ: We don't know. We actually started to go down in the polls around the Panama Papers and I think that's when people realised that there might have to be elections soon and maybe they feel uncomfortable that we are inexperienced, that we don't have friends in high places. I’ve told people that exactly because we are inexperienced, it gives us the ability to recognise that ourselves, so that we are better prepared. I don't think any party has put as much effort into preparing itself for service at a governance level, and no other party has as many international connections with experts in modernising society and dealing with corruption. Iceland has a lot of friends from all over because many people think of us as a kind of democracy laboratorium. You know, it is difficult, we have not been able to get any clear answers about either our popularity’s rise or fall. I don't know. 

AG: I've heard 2 main charges. One is on the economy, nobody knows what you're going to do on the economy. And obviously most elections, in most democracies, are ultimately decided on that one issue. The other is that I mean there's kind of a mixed picture. On the one hand you talk about the extreme activity of the three MPs but I also hear from, albeit from members of the Independence Party, that actually in the parliament, when it came to most things, you didn't vote. 

BJ: That's complete bollocks. The fact is that the parliament is constructed around bigger parties and this is something I have tried to change in the parliament in the nearly 8 years that I've been there. But they have never been willing, and particularly this government, to take into account that we are only 3 and that means that we can't cover all committees.

So on the issues that we were elected to look after, we have really gone all in, and we managed to stop a very dangerous law on student loans because our MP just really dug into it and got all the data and made the data available to the general public. Eventually it made all the others who were fighting against it more confident in their speeches, and she had just entered the parliament. There is no way we can make ourselves informed about everything. We have had to prioritise. I totally trust the left-greens when it comes to environmental issues. I trust both them and the social democrats when it comes to welfare issues. When it came to the bill on agricultural change, we didn't know who to trust and we didn't have a policy. It was being made, but we didn't know who to trust and we couldn't put a person into the committee because that person was working on the immigration bill which we felt was more important because we had done a lot of work on it and we knew it.

So when they say this, if you look at the record of their MPs and how many times they come and show up or vote then you notice that most of them are hardly there. They're just like the MPs and Lords that never show up in your palace, you know, what is it called... the Westminster. 

AG: Westminster Palace. 

BJ: Exactly. (laughs) When it comes to the finance stuff I mean it's like, we're very clear, we don't want to be messing too much with moving taxes up and down yet again because it is really bad for small and medium sized companies when you are constantly shifting and changing taxes with VAT. This is something that they are always doing. You have the left-coalition and then you have the right-coalitions and they're always messing with basic little things that are very heavy on people with little companies, so we rather want to go and change the fisheries system, so that we can get more money for the fish so that we can actually resurrect the health-care sector.

About the authors

Ashish Ghadiali is a film director, screenwriter and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir is an MP, poet and activist, and co-founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party.


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