Last Friday it was a fall from a cabinet entirely in the Ruttian style: ordered and sterile. No blame, no emotions; rather a hammer piece on the agenda of the Council of Ministers than a major political decision. Resign to the king and then get back to business as soon as possible. The prime minister on his way to the palace by bicycle had to complete the desired image of the still so common leader of the country, driven only by service and humility. As a result, it seems for Mark Rutte – a continuous resident of the Torentje since 2010 – to be a damage-free fall. Prime Minister Rutte is dead, long live Prime Minister Rutte.
The cause is entirely contrary to the external calm in which the premature departure was handled. Normally, a cabinet gives up when it no longer has sufficient confidence in parliament. But the breach of trust on the basis of which Rutte has offered the resignation of his cabinet is considerably greater. The report presented in mid-December Unprecedented Injustice of the Parliamentary Interrogation Committee on Childcare Allowance concluded that for years the ‘fundamental principles of the rule of law have been violated’. Government, parliament, civil service and justice: all had failed. In short, this is a breach of trust with the heart of democratic society.
It is perfectly logical that the cabinet will attach the utmost consequence and offer dismissal, but why not follow the royal path? Why not first be accountable in parliament and then resign – having ‘heard’ the House of Representatives? It may seem like constitutional sharpening without any material significance, but it is not. Just when a damning report signals a public administration that is not functioning across the board, political accountability must be conducted in an orderly manner, with a fully-fledged cabinet.
Too little too late
Now the House of Representatives will conduct a reverse debate this week. Parliamentary judgment on the findings in the committee’s report has yet to be passed, but the cabinet has already drawn the political conclusion without waiting. So, on the issue of political accountability, it is very much an after-meal mustard debate. As a result, a report about a sleazy government also gets sloppy political handling. It is a way that fits perfectly in the Dutch tradition. Cabinets or individual ministers who step down in parliament after having first given account are the exception rather than the rule.
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The cabinet’s decision not to await a judgment from the House of Representatives is all the more urgent because, although there is a report from a parliamentary committee, the House as a whole has not yet formally ruled on it. And that while there are many critical questions to be asked about the committee’s working method. Former vice president of the Council of State Herman Tjeenk Willink pointed this out earlier (Room should start looking in the mirror itself, 14/1) Why, for example, has the active role of the House of Representatives in bringing about the disastrous benefits system remained so underexposed? Certainly, the necessary victims have been made and there has been improper administration. But that does not prevent the House from also being critical of its own rapporteurs.
After last Friday’s political ritual cleansing, the opportunity for this has expired. In addition, the now outgoing cabinet has drawn lessons in a 26-page letter from what it says ‘black page in the history of the Dutch government’. An impressive list of points for improvement – the consultants can warm up again to accompany the ‘culture change’ – but which also means that the question of guilt is increasingly disappearing behind the horizon.
In any case, Prime Minister Rutte has seen the light on an important part. The man who managed to maintain himself for ten years by not saying things mainly because ‘the process’ could not be disrupted, takes what he calls a ‘radical step’ and opts for maximum publicity. It is somewhat reminiscent of King William II, who overnight under the pressure of the swelling revolutionary movement in Europe went from “very conservative to very liberal” in 1848.
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Rutte wants to get rid of the rule that official documents intended for ‘internal consultation’ do not have to be disclosed. That still holds some promise. Had this been policy before, the discussion about the pros and cons of abolishing dividend tax would have been less rigid. Or, more importantly: what considerations are the basis for the corona measures?
As a token of goodwill, Rutte will make the list of decisions of the weekly Council of Ministers public immediately after the meeting. Go ahead! The weekly press conference after the Council of Ministers was set up for that purpose in 1970 by the then Prime Minister Piet de Jong. Now that the prime minister is at work, he may also be able to publish the agenda of the weekly council of ministers in advance, because this also still falls under the category of state secret.
Finally, there is the cabinet formation, the dark event that, after the voter has spoken, sets the policy for four years. Nothing that was discussed in the run-up to the coalition agreement or produced as official documents needs to be made public afterwards. It is hoped that Rutte’s new public disclosure doctrine will all be over. It is to be feared that it is a vain hope.