Opinion: Clowns in a theater democracy

POSTED: 06/29/12 1:00 PM

Criticism of the Dutch parliament has increased to the level where a Volkskrant columnist is calling parliamentarians “the clowns of our theater democracy.” It is an interesting thought and though we are not ready to plaster such labels on the members of our own parliament, readers may recognize something in Bregman’s opinion.
Just another day in the life of an MP, Bregman scoffs: waking up on the morning, reading the newspaper, looking for a little something that is useful to feign excitement about and then without missing a beat posing questions to parliament that always have the same old structure.

1. Hello Minister. Did you know that: this that and the other, in the Telegraaf?
2. Do you also find this such an unbelievable super gigantic scandal?
3. Greetings to the family.

Slowly but surely the Second Chamber has not only lost the esteem of hard working Dutchmen but also its self-respect. Parliament’s breathtaking panting antics have become so unbearable that most parliamentarians keep it up for only a couple of years. Currently there are 22 MPs with more than ten years of experience and half of them are leaving, Bregman notes with dripping sarcasm.
Who could blame them? Maybe they were once full of ideals and ambition. Now they have been beaten down by infantile questions in parliament, searing emergency debates and motions that do not stand a chance whatsoever.
Take Marianne Thieme: she studied law in Amsterdam and Paris and she uses her talents these days to ask questions about goldfish and kangaroos. The call for content resound more and more desperate at the Binnenhof and it has become an empty cry, uttered in parliamentarian language that has steadily turned rougher.
In this merry go round, no sane mind keeps it up for more than a couple of years. The membership of parliament has become a period one has to go through, an interim-phase in a much broader career. The job-hopper in The Hague has to set his teeth in it, because at the end of the tunnel there must be some interesting boardroom function at a respectable bank or a healthcare institution.
But before they get there MPs have to get media coverage, otherwise they do not end up high enough on the candidate list. Tofik Dibi, the grandmaster of triviality, masters that art as no other, Bregman scoffs. In 2006 he became a candidate for GreenLeft – as a joke, as he later claimed. And then Dibi was discovered by the party as a political talent.
By now we know that the candidate committee considers him to be a creative winger. Read: somebody who has no comprehension of anything, but who is able to attract voters all the same.
Things worked out differently. Dibi lost himself in media conflicts, and in the process he lost all sense of realism. That’s how he singlehandedly almost blew up his whole party.
Parties do this to themselves, Bregman wrote. He refers to the criticism of Geert Wilders who singlehandedly composes his list of candidates. But in other parties the situation is not much better, he argues, because there candidates have to win the support of a small oligarchy instead of from one despot. If we leave it up to the current cabinet, the race for attention will only further intensify. With just one hundred Members of Parliament there will be more opinions with even less knowhow, while the fight for fewer seats will become more vehement.
What does this all add up to? According to Bregman the Binnenhof in The Hague is the stage for a comedy that slowly turns into a tragedy. Members of Parliament are the clowns of this cheap theater democracy. The more they moan and groan, the less serious the electorate and the government take them.
The worst thing is that this turns democracy into a monistic system. The Second Chamber is designed to control the government; that is healthy dualism. In reality it hardly gets around to its controlling function. At least half plus one of all parliamentarians is not critical of the government because it does not fit the party line. The rest is critical but not constructive, because the criticism is only meant to get attention. In the meantime the government, supported by a rock solid governing program, is able to do whatever it wants.
The heart of the problem is clear: parliamentarians are insufficiently independent. They always have to take the party line and the opinion of their party leaders into account. They don’t have time to do their own research, because they only have a single staff associate at their disposal.
What to do? Bregman wonders, before offering his suggestions: start with a significant increase in the number of staff associates for parliamentarians. That does something to the humongous disparity between lone parliamentarians and ministers, who have the support of armies of civil servants. There is also a need for a parliamentarian research bureau that does not only conduct research afterwards, but also future oriented research. The conclusions of research afterwards, Bregman notes, is always the same: the parliament did not know enough, or the parliament was too late.
The parliament must also regain control over its own agenda. It should not just debate based on media reports, or the quirks of the government or special interest groups. It has to establish on its own: these are the large problems of our time, and that is what we are going to talk about. A side-option is to delegate part of the agenda-control to the Social Economic Council or to the Council of State.
Real democracy will only emerge if the party-democracy is restructured as well, Bregman argues. The current Dutch party-system is undemocratic, everybody knows that. But the recent events at the GreenLeft party also show that so-called political talents do not always benefit the party. Parties must give their MPs more maneuvering space and at the same time select their candidates on the quality of content and experience.
Bregman hit several nails on the head in one go. His analysis of the Dutch parliamentary system is on the mark and it is only a matter of time before observers in St. Maarten realize that the situation in our tropical paradise is not much different.

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