Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Aukje de Vries' Diary Day 17

In the evening I realise that I have acted against all my principles. I have not done what I should do in the morning and I have not taken a walk or a bicycle ride for exercise. While I listen to the radio in the morning I hear that this is the day of a very important debate in Parliament. The session has hardly begun or there is an alarm. It is unclear whether it is a bomb alarm or a fire alarm or what, but everyone has to leave the building immediately. Consternation. The debate is suspended. The radio reporter has no idea what is going on. The audience can only guess. After 15 minutes it becomes clear what it is. It is…a fire drill. The date for this fire drill was set secretly at a time when is was unknown that today’s debate would be so important that it would be broadcast on radio and TV.

I go and watch TV. Maybe I should first explain a few facts about the Dutch political system, so that it is easier to understand the background of this debate.We have two Houses of Parliament: a Lower House and an Upper House. The Lower House, commonly called Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer) has 150 members and the Upper House, called either Senate or First Chamber (Eerste Kamer) has 75 members but is considerably less important than the Second Chamber. There are something like 11 parties represented in the 2nd Chamber, some of them are quite small, they have only 2 MPs. Until about 10 years ago there were three parties which were considerably larger than the others and two of them together usually had more than 75 seats in the 2nd Chamber. The three parties were the Christian Democrats (CDA), the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Conservative Party (VVD). For many years we had coalition governments of CDA with PvdA or of CDA with VVD; centre left or centre right. Recently these three parties have lost seats and some of the smaller parties have become larger. This means that more than 2 parties are needed to make a coalition government that has a majority in the 2nd Chamber. Before a government is established the parties concerned negotiate what they can do together: they try to agree on enough subjects in order to make it possible to govern. Now this pact among parties which are going to form the government is a most important document for the entire period that the government will be in power. It is comprehensible that coalition governments must work this way: the parties must know before they accept the responsibility of governing the country that there is enough common ground to be able to work together. If there would be too many contentious issues about which no agreement is possible the government would not last very long. This method of working has one great disadvantage: the MPs of the parties that take part in the government must support what has been agreed in the pact, in other words, they are not free to disagree with what has been decided and has become part of the pact. This makes it nearly impossible for them to reject government proposals conform the pact.

Since about 2 years we have a government of CDA, PvdA and a much smaller party the Christian Union (CU). In the negotiations preceding the formation of this government the CDA (the largest of the three) has made the other 2 parties agree that the government will not investigate how the Netherlands has become involved in the war in Iraq. In the previous period the PvdA was in opposition and in favour of such an investigation. The CDA was in the government with the same Prime Minister as today when The Netherlands decided to support the war in Iraq. The CDA has opposed consistently any attempts to investigate how such a decision could ever have been taken. Other governments like the USA, the UK and Australia have had investigations and have come to the conclusion that it was the wrong decision based on misleading information. The CDA and in particular the CDA Prime Minister keep saying that The Netherlands have made the right decision and that there is nothing to be investigated. Both Houses of Parliament have asked many questions but the answers from the government have been lengthy but evasive and neither the opposition in the 2nd Chamber nor the Senators are satisfied. They have asked more questions. The curious fact is that the PvdA is in principle in favour of an investigation, but the PvdA MPs in the 2nd Chamber cannot say so because the pact excludes this possibility. There would be a majority in Parliament for a parliamentary enquiry if only the PvdA MPs could speak freely. Journalists have begun to take an interest in trying to find more details about what has happened 6 years ago and they have uncovered internal documents showing that civil servants have advised the then minister against supporting the war because there are no valid legal grounds for it. Other journalists have done research in the USA and have found that a former high level politician has declared that the USA have asked for support from the Netherlands, which the Dutch government denies, at least - so they modify their original statement - there has never been a formal request. Shortly after the decision of the Netherlands to support the war in Iraq the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, a member of the CDA, has been appointed Secretary General of NATO. There is also some evidence that this is not a coincidence.Now that the government has been confronted with these “new facts” the Prime Minister sees that it is unavoidable that something be done and he has decided to make a committee, which is supposed to do the investigation. He has already found a President for the Committee, the former President of the Supreme court who has just been retired. This is not what the opposition wants, they want a parliamentary enquiry. The MPs can conduct such an enquiry which is the strongest instrument they have to do “truth finding”. Persons who are called to come and testify before the parliamentary enquiry commission are obliged to appear. They are on oath and all the hearings of the commission are public and broadcast by radio and TV. Today’s debate is about the way in which the investigation will be done: will the 2nd Chamber accept the committee (which will work behind closed doors and report to the government) or will they insist on the parliamentary enquiry. The PvdA is in a difficult position, because as a partner in the government their MPs are expected to be in favour of the committee.

The leader of the CDA who speaks first departs from his well-known position. There is no need for an investigation at all, everything is perfectly clear. Now that the government has decided that an investigation will be done the option of a committee is by far the best. The committee will be independent and get access to secret documents. What more can MPs ask for? He is attacked fiercely by three of the opposition parties. They have very many questions why there should not be a proper investigation by Parliament and they argue that the government and in particular the PvdA curtail the powers of Parliament. Basically the issue at stake was entering a war and this is an extremely important decision for any country.

Therefore the Parliament has every right and the duty to very thoroughly investigate what has happened. A parliamentary enquiry is the most effective method. The debate is breathtaking. I see the CDA leader get more and more nervous. His hands tremble. He keeps repeating the same arguments that in my opinion are not convincing at all. He counter attacks the opposition: they are not consistent according to him, but the opposition leaders do not give in. I can hardly believe that this CDA man really believes what he is saying, but he sticks to his arguments. The leader of the PvdA in contrast is very calm, very dignified and very clear. Her argument runs as follows: because the Prime Minister has proposed a committee, he has changed his point of view, and now allows an investigation. The committee may be successful and be able to really answer all the questions about the issue. This we will only know after 9 months, but we will have to give the committee a fair chance. If its report answers all questions then Parliament can be satisfied. However, if the report is unsatisfactory, then a parliamentary enquiry should be held as yet. Critical questions from the opposition: why not a parliamentary enquiry at once, why a delay of 9 months? The PvdA leader is very convincing, but it is recognised that she has created an opening for a parliamentary enquiry after 9 months. The opposition smells victory… I just can’t break away from the debate and keep watching until it is the highest time to prepare for my afternoon activity, the meeting with the representatives of the neighbourhood care organisation.

I’ll tell about that in tomorrow’s instalment, because this one is already too long. Later in the afternoon, after my guests have gone, I turn on the TV and see the debate is still going on, I just see the end. In the evening I see some of the parts I missed. Especially the facial expression of the Prime Minister is priceless!

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