President Kersti Kaljulaid's autumn session speech in full

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President Kersti Kaljulaid opening the Riigikogu autumn session on September 13, 2021. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

On Monday (September 13), President Kersti Kaljulaid opened the autumn session of the Riigikogu. ERR News republishes the speech in full.

Honourable members of the Riigikogu, dear people of Estonia! 

Over the last few months, there has been a great deal of criticism directed at our parliament that, in my opinion, the Riigikogu has not earned. Criticism of the most recent presidential election, which, truth be told, was conducted exactly how the rules stipulate. That criticism is unfounded – you all did your job swiftly and well. Our parliamentary state functioned the way it was supposed to.

Some of the criticism stemmed from procedural regulations that are simply not optimal for Estonia's current electoral system. The Riigikogu can heed the discernible public dissatisfaction and amend these rules, and I hope that it will. No changes were made after the last presidential election and could suspect that unfinished business would come back to haunt us. It did. 

The deadline for registering presidential candidates could be moved up by a month or two. For that option to be feasible, the list must then be final. May whoever receives more votes from those who wished to have their say in the electoral college, win.

Anyone who doesn't want to vote will have voluntarily stepped aside, no matter that they are essentially present. It is their choice and their right, but abstention should not affect the electoral results to any greater extent than the choice of a representative who has considered the candidates and come to a decision.

And thirdly, local governments deserve greater representation in the electoral college.

In this way, the public's faith in the procedure for electing the president of the Republic of Estonia will be easily restored. There's actually very little for us to do!

Much more complicated is, of course, the Riigikogu's own role in the way that governance is organized and the place it thereby receives in people's hearts. If Estonian citizens were to feel that the Riigikogu is truly a body that represents the views of all who live here – one where decisions take different worldviews into account while honouring the framework of freedoms, rights, and obligations enshrined in our Constitution – then perhaps they would also be prepared to give the parliament more breathing room and generous trust to consider who will be the next Estonian president.

I believe that much of the aggravation came from people simply regarding the Riigikogu as incompetent. They did not trust it to make a crucial decision in a manner and a way that has been trusted for 30 years.

This is a matter of serious concern.

As a staunch supporter of parliamentary governance, I want our Riigikogu to be an institution that comes to the minds of Estonian citizens whenever we are required to find new consensus in any area of society. Not when it seems about time to watch another entertaining feud. 

The Riigikogu must be an institution the country trusts when we are seeking consensus for important decisions that will have long-lasting effects. The tone of public attention that shadowed the presidential election showed this certainly isn't the case today.

Why do people think less of the Riigikogu than we'd all prefer? Part of the low expectations comes from the good example shown by others – professional and competent Estonian officials who often rightfully feel that they are more technically qualified than individual parliamentarians, or even than collective knowledge, have consistently taken greater and greater responsibility for what is written into our laws. 

However, that responsibility does not belong to them. It belongs to the Riigikogu.

And do you know what? I can completely understand when a member of parliament whose understanding of any given bill should ostensibly be fair enough to debate it has a hard time adequately stating their positions to executive institutions that know the topic through and through. Nevertheless, this is up to you – I believe the time is ripe to revive the discussion of how we might increase each member of the Riigikogu's ability to better contribute to substantive issues. You may debate among yourselves whether the solution is to hire aides for every representative, bolster committees or fractions with professionals from any given field, or some third alternative. But you could at least hold the debate, because to be honest, we dearly need it.

We could also have bolder public discussions about the types of people we'd like to maintain an interest in serving in the Riigikogu. Yes – in addition to the salary levels of teachers, rescue workers, cultural employees, and others, we must also discuss representatives' wages. At one point, I believe there was broad consensus that it should be four times the average Estonian salary. Today, it is less than three. 

It's a fact that for many highly skilled persons, the current salary for a member of the Riigikogu is simply unattractive. Naturally, the work of representing Estonia's citizenry is something not done for money, and this hall is certainly home to lofty ideals and standpoints and a desire to shape the country according to the wishes of one's voters, but a member of the Riigikogu is essentially a CEO of the Estonian state – all 101 of you – which means the salary must be motivating.

But I digress and will now return to your main function. 

When public officials and the government propose to amend the Emergency Act rapidly and couple it with changes to a raft of other laws, all supposedly to clarify existing law and smoothly exit a declared state of emergency, then the Riigikogu doesn't necessarily have to agree to act hastily. Public officials' mandates were expanded during the scramble, though the government can naturally scale them back if it so wishes. But what if the government declines to do so, because it finds it rather convenient to hide behind bureaucrats' backs during a crisis? Legislative clarity was not delivered, and political responsibility was blurred.

Another striking example of the same phenomenon – officials always know best – is the dwindling debate over the national budget in the Riigikogu. The institution's role has diminished more and more, to the point where members no longer even have at their disposal an elementary report of costs and expenses that could enable them to make substantial proposals if they so pleased.

But are public officials to blame? No. When any process has been drifting in the same direction for a very long time, then obviously no one involved – not even the Riigikogu – has had any objections. The more the Riigikogu has relinquished its role as state-builder and visibly taken the passenger seat – very visibly throughout the pandemic – the more convenient the government has found it. 

Are public officials to blame for making decisions when politicians fail to do so? They are not. An official has to decide something when there a lack of political guidance. Estonia's public officials recognize responsibility – they do not leave society guessing. But this shouldn't be the case. Politicians should make the decision.

So, what are the limits to one person's freedom to make choices about their own body and decide whether or not to vaccinate? Where does another person's freedoms begin – for example, a young person's right to know that when they go to school, they'll be surrounded by adults who respect that child's right to life and health well enough to have vaccinated themselves against the coronavirus disease? Should a sick person be able to be confident – as confident as we can be (and obviously, vaccinated persons are less likely to contract coronavirus) – that a virus transmitted at the hospital won't put their health into further jeopardy?

It isn't fair to have public officials decide the new balance between rights and freedoms – the head of the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board, the head of the Estonian Defence Forces, directors of hospitals and ambulance services, or company CEOs. The balance is yours to make, dear Riigikogu. And, I might add – public ire tends to fall upon those who made the decisions. Not on the Riigikogu. Even so, working from the passenger seat will have its long-term effects on the Riigikogu, too. 

At some point, you will no longer be seen as those who should find the balance for our society.

But there are also areas outside the pandemic where I greatly regret the loss of the Riigikogu's guiding role in achieving national consensus. Take for example the 2018 supplement to the Social Welfare Act regarding NEET youth, which gives the state the right to collect information on young persons from the national database, draw conclusions, and use them to offer youth support and assistance for moving forward in life. This sort of proactive country exits the agreement we had during the first stage of developing e-governance. Back then, we promised people they would only have to tell the state personal information once and we'd know it from that point forward. The state knows, but it does not assemble or utilise the data to better understand people, and certainly not to perceive their patterns in life. It doesn't even use it without people's knowledge. But the state does in fact do this with NEET youth.

Or take the second part of our e-governance agreement 1.0, according to which the state may use database information solely for the purposes for which it was shared, unless a court permits it to act differently. That promise is at odds with the bill establishing an automated biometric identification system, which was debated in this hall for quite some time. Alas, the lengthy discussions did not lead to a unified understanding that in our new technological reality, we need an e-governance agreement 2.0, just like we need it to assist NEET youth and develop other proactive government services.

The Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice have promised me they will cooperate to create an e-governance agreement 2.0 – however, whatever they and their public officials propose can only become the compact that Estonia needs so badly right here in the Riigikogu. I ask you to please find that new balance, which will enable us to implement artificial intelligence when offering state- and private-sector services, all while respecting people's rights. This has been high-priority for a very long time already, and the continued development of e-governance also depends on it. 

I'll go out on a limb and predict that the green revolution will not be possible without society developing similar questions about the balance of rights and responsibilities in the process – be they the right of local residents to have a say in where wind generators are erected; or the right of workers in the shale-oil industry to social protections, which for a certain period of time must be given preferential status in relation to people who work in freely-developing sectors.

I'd like all these agreements to be made in the Riigikogu, not merely show up on your desks for approval. I would like the role of Riigikogu committees to never be limited to simply making changes in bills, a large share of which are also currently delivered by ministry officials and initiated by comments made to the drafts from outside the Riigikogu. I'd like the substantive, complex, and, for some, unavoidably uncomfortable agreements and compromises to be made transparently, as a result of meaningful debates, and right here in this hall.

Dear Riigikogu – the moral turmoil of the last few years, which everything surrounding the pandemic and vaccination has shown to us as a litmus test, proves beyond a doubt that Estonia needs the Riigikogu to be its guide. A Riigikogu that persistently puts into words our freedoms and responsibility in this kaleidoscopic life with which the world's turning presents us. Which assures me, the citizen, that my contribution to improving Estonia's future is similar to that of my fellow citizens, and that we will all enjoy a similar share in that better future.

I want Estonia's parliamentary system to be something of which my children and grandchildren can be proud. This is up to you, dear Riigikogu! It's certainly comfortable in the passenger seat, but anyone who sits there is sure to lose their right to have a say in societal matters, no matter how well that right is built into the Constitution. Gradually and unremarkably, it will fade away – just as is happening right now. The process is only exacerbated when there are members of the Riigikogu who consistently forget that anytime anyone opens their mouth to speak in this hall, they are not only addressing the individual asking or replying to a question, but are speaking to the Estonian people. Whether it is an issue of intelligence or purposeful mockery of the parliamentary system – only they can say.

Either way, a Riigikogu that has relinquished control over the wheel or simply lost it over the years, a Riigikogu that often doesn't even take itself seriously, is putting the future of parliamentary democracy at risk. If people one day grow impatient and find that parliamentarianism isn't for us, then there will, unfortunately, be actors who will use the situation to their own advantage.

Dear friends, I would like to say farewell with the words spoken by President Toomas Hendrik Ilves here at this very podium in 2011:

"The Estonian Constitution prescribes that the Riigikogu last for all time. On the one hand, this obliges you to be worthy of your predecessors; to preserve and promote what has been accomplished here before. On the other hand, you are responsible for how the Estonian people regards the parliament, and thereby the state, in five, 10, and 50 years from now."

That was 10 years ago. May this year's political season be the one in which the trend pointed out by President Ilves – the compounding of which I have also regarded with great concern – is finally reversed! 

I wish you a productive autumn!

Editor's note: A translation of this speech was provided by the Office of the President.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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