Parliamentary scrutiny of a Unitary Cabinet government during the coronavirus crisis – Part 1

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Thankfully dedicated to Captain Tom Moore, the NHS backyard walker, whose generation of Britons, Canadians and Poles restored Dutch democracy exactly 75 years ago. Without them, all this would be impossible.

I’ve been a D66 parliamentary researcher for 30 years, and as a history graduate (Leiden University) I know quite a lot about Dutch constitutional and political history. But the developments in that terrain I’m about to describe are absolutely unprecedented, since the Dutch unitary state, monarchy, and dual chamber parliament were established in 1814-15.

As a party founded in 1966 to update Dutch democracy to the 20th (now 21st) century, we in D66 believe in as much dualistic politics and decision making as possible between the Executive and the Legislature. So we enthusiastically support the informal working arrangement that has now arisen between the Rutte coalition government (of which we are the Progressive, Pro-European wing) and the Second Chamber, the main part of our parliament.

First, a short sketch of the Dutch parliamentary government system, and some notes about what was usual with government communications.

In the Dutch constitution, Parliament is a totally separate branch of government. MP’s who become ministers have to resign and are replaced by the next candidate on the party election list, and we don’t have a “Leader of the House” cabinet member helping to arrange the parliamentary agenda. The Presidium of sitting MPs (the Speaker/President and one MP from every parliamentary party) arrange everything.

The President of the Second Chamber (elected by all other MPs) is politically in charge of the whole parliamentary staff. The  Chamber has its own budget and own plenary budget debate. It’s quite usual in Dutch coalition politics to have a President from the opposition benches; every MP sitting in the President’s chair is obliged to be politically neutral and just apply the Standing Orders and procedures during sessions.

As far as I know a government, let alone the king, cannot prorogue parliament at will; there is no article about that in our (written) Constitution. Parliament is fully in charge of its recesses and working days/weeks.

Since 1969 Dutch prime ministers have held a press conference Friday afternoon, after the weekly plenary Cabinet meeting, explaining the decisions taken etc. Our present, centrist-Liberal (VVD party) Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who from 2010 onwards has led 3 very different coalitions, has become quite good at this. It is exceptionally rare for a Prime Minister to hold a press conference beside this weekly one; one of those by Rutte was after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine.

For the development of the Corona crisis in the Netherlands (from around 28 February 2020) see Wikipedia. I strongly urge readers to have this article ready when reading the following, to know the full context.

The first special press conference by Rutte was on 9 March, announcing some preliminary measures (“don’t shake hands”). But in the following days Corona contagion exploded in Brabant province, and in his second Corona press conference on 12 March Rutte expanded local Brabant countermeasures (“work at home”) to the whole country. In the press conference on 15 March Rutte closed down all kinds of facilities.

On March 16 Rutte addressed the nation on all public and commercial TV networks, radio and the public broadcasting websites; the last such TV speech was in 1973 when the Arab OPEC nations cut off direct petroleum deliveries to us.

King William Alexander, who together with queen Máxima shows an active interest in all aspects of battling the Corona epidemic, on 20 March gave a TV and radio address (a very rare occasion for Dutch monarchs outside their usual Christmas address).

In his press conference of 23 March, Rutte announced a situation of “intelligent lockdown”. The regime was similar to the British one, but from the start of his Corona press conferences Rutte was less insouciant and more earnest than Boris Johnson – this set a tone.

On 8 April, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, which was monitoring all Corona developments and advising national and local government, warned that  care homes for the elderly had been penetrated by the corona virus. Attention started shifting to the lack of PPE clothing and instruments there. Government promised to adjust the distribution quotas for those among the different kinds of health and other care.

D66 is our sister party in the Netherlands.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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