Maastricht raadslid responds to Dutch Kabinet resignation
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
By Alexander Lurvink
Last Friday, the Dutch national cabinet resigned as a result of a political scandal involving the fiscal authorities, child-support allowances and what appears to be the concealment of information by the state bureaucracy. As a direct consequence, many already vulnerable households found themselves in increasingly difficult situations. Instead of recognising its mistake, the civil service doubled down and tried to conceal its wrongdoing, ultimately going against its very purpose to serve the people.
With 60 days left until general election, the predictable happened and the story turned out to become too much of a hot potato. A petty game of hot seat, finger-pointing and in-front-of-the-bus throwing game ensued, typical of modern politics. Now, establishment parties are wondering whether enough political careers were sacrificed upon the altar of electability.
As a first-time local politician, I learned how difficult it is to make sense of the news and the reality behind it. From my limited vantage point, I observe the unfolding of the latest political drama just like anyone from a distance. Yet, my short-lived experience of politics has offered me some basic insights I would like to share with you:
First, government bureaucracies have become too big and too opaque. Given sufficient time, a politician will eventually acquire the experience to steer the massive enterprise of government. However, acquiring this skill is time-consuming, and a four year electoral term is too short to develop such expertise. Besides, elections are unpredictable and have a tendency to reduce complex issues to simple catchwords, instead of elevating the public discourse through informative debate and in-depth programmes.
Second, the popularity contest inherent to representative democracy creates disincentives for bold policies. Given the personal sacrifice required to reach a position of power, politicians are incentivized to be careful and avoid difficult decisions, relying instead on expensive risk-assessment consultants to shift the blame in case of a policy fallout.
Last but not least, parliaments increasingly fail to hold the executive responsible. We are currently witnessing this phenomena in The Hague, bringing the government down not because of public outcry, but because of media pressure and electoral calculus.
In Maastricht, we experienced similar impunity just a few months ago, when the city council was confronted with a deficit of €24 million, yet the council found itself unable to formalize even the slightest critique, de facto enabling mismanagement, undermining its own check-and-balance responsibility and forbidding the necessary self-reflection to take place.
All in all, I came to realise that our governance model is obsolete and in dire need of a reset. More than ever, I remain convinced that we need to update our democratic system. The latest events in The Hague, Brussels, London and Washington, speak to this. In light of the ongoing pandemic, I believe that a window of opportunity has opened up to constructively yet fundamentally challenge our status-quo.
In less than sixty days, the Netherlands will head to the voting booth. For too many people, this is where their civic action ends. Instead, this ought to be the start of their civic activity. If we want to change our way of doing politics, marking a voting ballot simply does not suffice anymore. There are many various ways how citizens can become effective in the political debate, but they all require a minimum level of information. Following the news is a good first step. Following local politics is a very good second one. However becoming politically engaged is the necessary path to follow!
Alexander Lurvink is raadslid and fractievoorzitter of Maastricht city council since 2018.