Parliamentary scrutiny of a Unitary Cabinet government during the coronavirus crisis – Part 2

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After Prime Minister Rutte’s March 12 press conference, the Second Chamber ordered (!) all parliamentary parties to make researchers start working from home; only a skeleton staff of co-ordinating people remained and MPs not having meetings retreated. The First Chamber (Senate) only meets on Tuesdays and can only veto or pass laws; their meetings were temporarily suspended (many members are above 60 years old). This was unprecedented.

After Rutte’s 15 March press conference, the Second Chamber Presidium took a double drastic step: only plenary sessions and debates about the progress of the national Corona crisis (one a week) would proceed.  Scrutinizing activities by specialist parliamentary committees were to be conducted online via written contributions and committee debates would be conducted online. The weekly “Question Time” hour was cancelled for the time being. Because Parliament too falls under the maximum 100 persons in a room rule (we have 150 MPs), the 15 parliamentary parties were allowed to have one or two MPs from each participating in plenary debates. To obey the constitutional quorum for plenary sessions, other MPs would sign in but retreat after that.

This sort of thing has never happened since the foundation of the Dutch unitary state and its two-chamber parliament in 1814-15. Right after occupying the Netherlands, the Germans disbanded parliament in May 1940; it reconvened after liberation in summer 1945.

The parliamentary building remains open for all MPs, researchers and staffers, but with some rare exceptions everybody was supposed to work from home. Parliamentary employees who needed to remain active were put on part-time and shift working hours (only security remained 24/7); all restaurants and catering to parliamentary meetings were closed and suspended.

A weekly routine developed: on Mondays and Tuesdays, the government consults with its advisers, and around 17.00 a press conference will be held with Rutte taking the main stage. After an early press conference with four other ministers beside Rutte resulted in unclear messaging, only one minister accompanies Rutte in those press conferences. A sign language translator stands between Rutte and the minister, so she’s always visible on TV.

On Wednesday, the day starts with a medical and statistical update (with time for questions) by director Van Dissel of the Pandemics Department of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, and the president of the professional association of Intensive Care doctors. Since 2 April the director of the General Inspectorate for Health and Youth Care has joined them.

From 16 April the Intensive Care doctor was replaced by the president of all care home organizations and the Infections co-ordinator of all local healthcare centres. The Intensive Care scarcity is diminishing. The audience here (one MP from each party) is the Parliamentary Health commission, which handles who is invited. This briefing is broadcast live on public television (and turns out to set the agenda for many subsequent news stories and talk show interventions).

On Wednesday afternoon, the plenary parliamentary debate about all aspects (the medical and public health situation, but also the economic, socio-economic and other consequences, aspects and government measures, and the international/EU perspectives) is held. Usually many parliamentary parties send their leader or their health spokesperson.

On Thursday another Rutte press conference gives a preview of what could be coming down the track with Corona policy. The more general Friday post-Cabinet press conference continues.

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

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