More lamb than lion

Parliament chooses to bark, not bite

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, an occupational hazard in writing 2nd Opinion is that big ideas float across my screen and disappear too soon, and too fast. Every second opinion begs a third, and a fourth - and these would be more insightful. 

So this week, some accounting of my own. With the benefit of hindsight, here’s another take - some fresh answers - to issues raised by my last post, A wafer-thin plan. Plus some key points from the first 2nd Opinion webinar last week, with thanks to everyone who joined.

"Minute-gate”

According to Herman Diederik Tjeenk Willink, a 79 year-old retired civil servant and former labour party senator, Dutch politics suffers from the onerous terms of too many back-room deals between the five parties which, in varying configurations, take turns to form every cabinet.

Willink was deployed by prime minister Mark Rutte in the role of informateur to suggest remedies for the breakdown in trust between the cabinet and parliament after a string of scandals. His advice? Willink wanted party leaders with ambitions to join a new coalition to break with precedent.

Instead of a detailed political pact, he proposed that parties adopt the bare bones of an “outline” agreement to establish four or five priorities. The rest could be left to the incoming cabinet, while technocrats handled the detailed work of policy.

This was a gift to parliament: the kind of incriminating material on which MPs worth their salt could sharpen their teeth

That way, reasoned Willink, parliament would play a more meaningful role in legislation and holding the government to account. 

Naturally, MPs loved the idea.

But would it work?

The alternative, wrote Natalie Righton in the Volkskrant, was that every possible solution would be negotiated endlessly in the House - het risico groeit dat later in de Kamer over elke mogelijke oplossing eindeloos onderhandeld gaat worden. 

An early test came last week. 

Lamb’s teeth

In a parliamentary debate, MPs confronted hard proof - in the form of written minutes from a cabinet meeting - that ministers had discussed how much of their conversation to omit from those same written records. Here was damning evidence that ministers viewed MPs with, if not actual disdain, then a definite lack of respect for their democratic function. Like troublesome children, best excluded from sensitive decisions. 

The minutes logged that ministers wanted to obscure awkward details related to the child benefit scandal. Facts already known to parliament from the written report of a committee of enquiry were deemed unsuitable for the minutes of a cabinet meeting. As if by drawing further attention to a known scandal, supine MPs might be stirred into action. 

This then was a gift to parliament: a record of attempted - and, arguably, actual concealment. Either way, this was the kind of incriminating material on which (to mix metaphors, in an English idiom) any MPs worth their salt could sharpen their teeth.

From the opposition benches, Geert Wilders, eurosceptic leader of the PVV or freedom party, spelt out the stakes: nothing would change if parliament allowed itself to be pushed around, for as long as MPs failed to show their teeth - “Er zal niets veranderen zolang wij met ons laten sollen, zolang wij onze tanden niet laten zien”. It was the day for parliament to take a stand: to be a lamb, or a lion - “Zijn we vandaag lam of leeuw?”

The results were, well…meek.

In Volkskrant, Yvonne Hofs described a familiar closing of ranks from the parliamentary parties. Far from showing their teeth, MPs lapsed into their usual loyal formation. None sought to defend Peter Omtzigt, the independent-minded CDA MP who has emerged as the conscience of the House after his dogged pursuit of the truth about a racist government algorithm in the child benefit scandal. 

Even if the incoming cabinet - Rutte IV, or Kaag I, or any other configuration - adopted Willink’s ideas, and refused to enter a coalition contract brokered behind closed doors, here was more evidence that parliamentarians lack seriousness about their constitutional role. 

For members of the cabinet “something special seemed to be happening,” observed Wouter de Winther in the Telegraaf - met kabinetsleden tijdens het notulendebat iets bijzonders te gebeuren. 

Unexpectedly, the burden of een foutebestuurscultuur - a faulty administrative culture - was carried by the entire cabinet. Responsibility for obscuring unhelpful facts - “the pain” - was suddenly shared. This was the same defective culture for which, after all, Rutte was almost toppled during a heated row in March. 

In that post-election parliamentary rumpus, detractors had sought to single out Rutte as the symbol of a systemic failure in the administration culture - omdat hij het symbool zou zijn van een foute bestuurscultuur. Only one other minister had suffered those same slings and arrows, namely health minister Hugo de Jonge who took the flak for public frustration over the pandemic. 

Last week, noted De Winter, the sorrow usually reserved for Rutte was shared by the entire cabinet: De doorgaans aan Rutte voorbehouden smart werd ineens gedeeld door het hele kabinetsvak. Among them, three ministers from D66 - the largest ‘opposition’ group, now with 24 seats - who for the past 18 months were able to work in relative seclusion - in relatieve luwte hun werk konden

A burden shared

If the generalised disdain for ministers reflected MPs’ restive mood, their outrage didn’t really translate into any kind of concerted call for more collective responsibility.

Even Groene Links, the green left party, waved an olive branch. In a conciliatory tone, leader Jesse Klaver suggested that the cabinet’s intentions did "not have to be absolutely right or absolutely wrong." How could both sides “get out of this debate,” he wondered? Klaver was looking for a “connection,” noted one minister.    

Rutte himself appeared keen to embrace Willink’s advice. Closing the debate, he promised a cabinet that will govern, making actual decisions again, rather than following pre-cooked agreements. 

Ultimately, though, it’s not up to Rutte.

An effective cabinet needs a parliament able and willing to hold it to account - where more MPs share the independent-minded instincts of, say, a Peter Omtzigt. On the evidence to date, parliament appeared to be moving in the opposite direction.

MPs remain bound by party allegiances, but simultaneously - and with all their rhetoric - sceptical of the cabinet’s authority or intentions. 

It’s hard not to see the irony.

Willink wants the old constitutional model restored, for good reason. At the same time, also for good reason, public opinion in general has grown more sceptical of authority and unconcerned for due process. A growing proportion of Dutch people are inclined to credit bizarre conspiracy theories.

Parliament, then, is in step with an public opinion. Even to more level-headed people, the logic has largely vanished from coronavirus regulations.

Recent decisions to abolish the curfew, and the prospect of further easing of other regulations, follows a trend in countries with far higher vaccination rates. Yet in Dutch hospitals, intensive care units remain stretched to capacity with occupancy rates on a par with April 2020.

The rationale for easing corona-rules at this juncture is hard to explain.

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Webinar highlights

Big thanks to 2nd Opinion readers who joined last week’s webinar, Big Oil’s Big Problem, with Follow This founder Mark van Baal. The 2021 season of annual general meetings in oil and gas companies kicks off within the next week, so I’ll return to these issues soon. 

Meanwhile, a few take-aways from that discussion. According to Anne Simpson, from the powerful Californian pension fund CalPERS, investors need an “inter-generational approach”. She told a recent Follow This symposium that net-zero ambitions from Big Oil were "a fig leaf”. Bold claims about offsetting emissions, or carbon capture and storage, were “prettification”. 

From a different perspective, in the financial markets, Mark Lewis, head of sustainability strategy in London for the French bank BNP Paribas, argued that the growing pressure on investors in oil and gas was a consequence of their companies’ failure to act earlier.

If Big Oil had embraced the energy transition more enthusiastically, the energy incumbents would have more time to chart a new course. Instead, plans to fund the transition to renewables with the proceeds from more fossil fuels had failed to revive oil companies’ share prices. That looked about right, said Lewis, because “the job of markets is to price tomorrow’s value today”.

Both Simpson and Lewis reinforced the core claim of Follow This that Big Oil can make or break the Paris Climate Agreement. Oil and gas companies don’t agree: they argue that global heating is a societal problem. As Shell CEO Ben van Beurden puts it, oil and gas producers can only move “at the speed of society”. 

That critical argument will be aired, again, in the coming AGMs. To watch a short video of highlights from the Follow This symposium in April, click here.  

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COMING SOON

On Friday May 14, I’ll post on the fantastical true story of the Deventer Mediasaak, a hugely popular podcast exposing the influence of opinion pollster Maurice de Hond in allegations of murder - a media sensation which puts the Dutch media itself on trial. You couldn’t make this stuff up.