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Jaak Aaviksoo: The good practice of lynching Peep Peterson

Jaak Aaviksoo.
Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

No one explicitly calls Peep Peterson a corrupt politician, but it is "good practice" to be wary of him. Should the labor minister leave the room when it comes to discussion of working conditions or minimal wages? Or should he refrain from using the term "trade unions" and renounce trade union positions in order to "restore confidence"? None of this makes sense, says Jaak Aaviksoo.

One can guess that the document "Good Practice in Communicating with Lobbyists for Officials" (2021) based on the work of international academics is composed by the Ministry of Justice in the hopes that it would help stop "rampant corruption."

The government of the day could not object to such a campaign and so the "good practice" became official. Until diligent summer reporters and political opponents discovered that the new Minister of Labor and Health Peep Peterson had been a trade union leader and a lobbyist in the sense of the "practice," and thus posed a high risk of corruption.

[Daily] Eesti Päevaleht titled the related editorial the "New government's first blunder," with former president Kersti Kaljulaid sowing seeds of doubt and political opponents Kaja Kallas and Kristina Kallas pressing their own issues.

Common sense, come back!

No one explicitly calls Peep Peterson a corrupt politician, but it is "good practice" to be wary of him. Should the labor minister leave the room when it comes to discussion of working conditions or minimal wages? Or should he refrain from using the term "trade unions" and renounce trade union positions in order to "restore confidence"?

Nothing here makes sense.

It should come as no surprise, nor is it illegal, for socialists to advocate for the interests of workers. When a trade union leader becomes a minister of labor, a school principal becomes a minister of education, or a hospital director becomes a minister of health, it is a positive rather than a negative development; at least some competency is guaranteed. On this basis, spreading formalistic allegations of corruption is downright wrong.

This is not to imply, however, that the minister should not be allowed to set aside his (former) private interests. But that is part of the oath of office, and if it is violated, he can and should be held accountable under the law rather than being demonized in a "premeditated" media campaign.

This overblown scandal is, of course, indicative of a larger issue. We realize that the law and the legal system that enforces it cannot regulate everything, and that so-called "legally watertight" schemes infringe on our sense of justice. A strict interpretation of the rule of law has spawned groups of people who pose haughty questions - "Where does it say you can't spit here?" - and then set about creating "good practice" guidelines to accompany the law in the hope that this improves the cultural environment of legislative practices. This is a futile hope, however, a deception even.

The distinction between a practice and a law is precisely that the former cannot be imposed; it emerges and evolves from common experience; it simply is. And truly good practice does not even need to be documented; it is simply part of the (organizational) culture that is established orally and through conduct.

Particular caution should be exercised when introducing "practice" born of external motives, let alone coercion. We promote hypocrisy and the intrigue that feeds on it in this way, rather than trust and mutual understanding, which are already in short supply.

Part of the dissatisfaction with rules based on law alone is probably due to our norm-centric legal culture: the written word is more powerful than the meaning of the norm, which frequently results in overly-judicious, Kafkaesque schemes. Here, a slightly more substantive approach to the law, both by the government and the courts, would help much more than putting "good practices" next to, or even in place of legal rules.

In a number of cases, alongside or even as a corollary to the general principles of law, there is also a place for corporate norms or codes of conduct, commonly referred to as codes of honor or ethics. These provide an opportunity for a collegial position to be taken, whether in internal disputes or on the observance of professional rules, before a problem escalates into an offense. This should remain primarily an internal matter for the organization and not be the subject of public political or media disputes.

Such an institution also requires far more than formalized regulation. In particular, there must be broad substantive acceptance of what is written by the involved officials, as well as collegial sanctions for rule violations and a monitoring, procedural, and appeals mechanism. A good example is the effective implementation of the Code of Ethics of the Estonian Bar Association, which has increased the credibility of the Bar. Unfortunately, there are also examples to the contrary.

If the risks associated with lobbying public officials are to be managed in a meaningful way, some thought needs to be given to where and how these risks might actually materialize in Estonia, with the solution worked out accordingly. It would probably be best to supplement the existing code of ethics for officials rather than introduce an entirely new one.

The "best practices" endorsed (and established?) for the benefit of the previous administration should not be extended to all future government officials and political officeholders. After all, every politician is by nature always a lobbyist, attempting to further their political party's objectives through the power of public office. If this is done openly declaring one's interests, you would expect voters to be wise enough to see this and judge consistently.

There is no point in trying to balance this inherent conflict of interest with some kind of "good practice." All we get is the continuation of watchdog journalism while presenting the ethics of opposing political groups. Nothing else.

However, I wish good luck to Peep Peterson in office.

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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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