Rutte doctrine: pronounce the word a few times and you can hardly get it out of your head.
Since the notion surfaced in the childcare allowance survey last year, the prime minister’s political opponents have missed a chance to refer to it. Partly as a clever political catchphrase that emphasizes Rutte’s role in the Toeslagen affair, but also to express something that has been bothering MPs for much longer: the inadequate provision of information by Rutte’s cabinets in many important files.
For such a ubiquitous understanding, it is striking that the investigation committee in its final report, Unprecedented injustice did not provide a definition. It only refers to Rutte’s own words, who was confronted with a text message from one of his advisers during his interrogation before the committee. He had let it be known that certain documents could not be made public “because of the Rutte doctrine”. The result: the Chamber lacked information, the affair continued.
Rutte replied that “internal discussions” between civil servants themselves and with their ministers do not need to be shared with the House in his view. According to him, that is even undesirable. “Before it is decided ‘we are going to do this’, I think it is very important that people can discuss among themselves in safety.” Otherwise, the prime minister said, officials might keep quiet because they fear that after disclosure, they will be looked at for “stupid ideas” they had expressed during a brainstorming session.
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The definition used by the House is less sympathetic. Rutte actually says: ‘Once we make a decision, the world will be allowed to know. Everything that precedes this is our business, ”says SP MP Renske Leijten, who has been active on the allowance file for years and is a member of the investigation committee. “But we as a House want to know exactly why a decision was taken. When we eat fries, we must be able to know which potatoes went in it. Just communicating the end result is not enough. ”
The cabinet may choose not to share information requested by the House, but only if the security of the state or ‘the unity of the Crown’ is at stake, or if it only concerns the ‘personal policy views’ of officials. This guideline was laid down in a memorandum drawn up in 2002 by then Minister Klaas de Vries (Internal Affairs, PvdA) and is formally unchanged. But practice has changed, say critics of the Rutte doctrine. According to them, more and more pieces have been hidden away under the guise of ‘personal policy views’ in recent years.
“Rutte makes a caricature of it,” says Wim Voermans, professor of constitutional and administrative law, associated with Leiden University. “It’s not about a thought police chasing after officials. Politics is about making choices. If you can no longer see on the basis of which scenarios, which considerations, and which information those choices have been made, you cannot judge the choice. ”
“Transparency, openness and completeness were not the guiding principles in practice,” says the final report of the investigation committee. Many MPs agree with this conclusion, and that is not limited to the Supplement affair. In the receipt affair about the Teevendal, in the dividend tax riot and also during the indexation investigation, important memos sometimes only surfaced after much insistence or through other means.
It is known that ministers sometimes write sensitive notes on post-its: if you remove them afterwards, the content cannot be traced. When Rutte discusses the corona crisis with other cabinet members and advisers at the Catshuis, no minutes are taken. Leijten: “Save as little as possible, make as few notes as possible: that is also the Rutte doctrine.”
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Rutte maintained during the interrogations that his Ministry of General Affairs does not write down much because it is such a small, compact department. That important memos would sometimes show up too late, he said, was never intended.
The pattern is clear, says Wim Voermans. For a new book, he recently investigated how often the cabinet provided the House with incorrect or incomplete information: in ten years under Prime Minister Rutte, this was 67 times, one and a half times as often as in the previous ten years.
“CDA minister Donner was also very principled in this: too great an emphasis on openness does not benefit decision-making,” says Voermans. “Rutte then really turned that into an art. It is no coincidence that his cabinets are so stable. This is part of that. ”
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next of January 15, 2021