A lot has been going on with the Netherlands citizens assembly. The learning phase is now over and it has moved on to its consultation phase. Here’s a report from David Hulsius, one of its members.
June 5, 2006
Here's another update from the Dutch citizens assembly! It's a bit long, but a lot has happened since my last e-mail. Feel free to shorten it.
In my last update I told about the first two weekends in which we were introduced to the world of electoral systems. We have done a lot since that weekend, so there's quite a lot of news.
In our third weekend (21/22 April) we looked at pros and cons and the effects of the different types of electoral systems on for instance proportionality, representation of women and minorities, stability of the government, activities of MPs, etc. The subject thus came closer to our central topic: what is it that we find most important in our electoral system and what might happen if we should change elements of that system. Also, during this weekend we prepared for the regional meetings that are currently being held all over the country. We decided on which topics we thought are important to be discussed during these meetings. Main topics were voter's influence on coalition forming, representation of minorities and women, and the role of parties versus individual MPs. Generally, this weekend was seen as very informative and useful by the members.
The next weekend (12/13 May) dealt much less with electoral systems. Instead we looked at the role of ourselves, the individual members, within the assembly process for the months to come. Chairmen, vice-chairmen and spokesmen for the subgroups were appointed as well as a media committee. Although much time, to the annoyance of some members, was spent on electing these people and thinking about one's role in the assembly we also looked at the content: debating positions were put forward in order to generate discussions during the regional meetings. A poll held in the previous weekend revealed some opinions in the assembly: The majority of the assembly does not want to change anything about the proportionality of our current system, the existence of coalition governments and the current high turnouts at elections (of around 80%). Some things the majority thinks should be changed are the number of parties in parliament, the way coalitions and the cabinet are formed, and the role of MPs.
Apart from the assembly weekends, assembly members can attend 1-day courses on dealing with media, using computers, training of debating skills, etc.
As the weekend descriptions show, we have now moved from a learning phase to a consultation phase. As we now know a lot about electoral systems, it is time to ask other people what they feel is important. This consultation phase consists mainly of 12 regional meetings that are currently being held in places all over the Netherlands. It is supported by a website, www.nederlandpraatmee.nl. In the last 2 months a media campaign was launched drawing attention to the existence of the assembly and to the regional meetings. The campaign consists of TV ads, billboards on train stations and large ads in both nationwide newspapers as well as some regional papers. Several members of the assembly have also contacted local media and councils in order to draw attention to the meetings.
The first meetings (in Amsterdam, Groningen and Rotterdam) were successful, although less people turned up than hoped for. During the meetings vivid debates were held. While a large part of the audience was enthusiastic about the assembly and seems to agree that it reflects Dutch society well, much less people feel that it is the electoral system itself that causes problems. There are also some doubts whether parliament will seriously look at the assembly's advisory report. Many people complained about the activities and attitudes of MPs, the power of parties and about how coalitions are formed. That some of these issues can in fact be affected by the electoral system did not occur to everybody. However, it also stresses that reform of the electoral system alone is not a universal remedy in order to solve perceived problems in Dutch politics. As 9 more meetings are planned I cannot draw any conclusions yet, but hearing the opinions of other Dutchmen sure is interesting and useful.
During the next weekend (9/10 June) we will not only be looking back at the first regional meetings, but we will also start discussing extensively what we personally feel should or should not be changed in our electoral system. British political studies author David Farrel, whose book on electoral systems we have read as "homework", will also be visiting. Furthermore, we will look at previous reform proposals that have been done in the past in the Netherlands. We also face the challenge that we will have to think about how the assembly will reach consensus on a final advise in October/November and how we are going to get there.
The assembly still seems very motivated and I feel the assembly is also functioning quite well. I do believe we will be able to come up with an inspired, well-founded advisory report. Unfortunately, the assembly has not received very much attention in national media yet. While assembly members themselves have successfully contacted local newspapers and radio stations, nationwide papers and tv stations have reported very little on the assembly. I think there are two major reasons for this. First of all, the media campaign was only fully launched after the learning-phase was finished, resulting in the fact that few people knew about our activities. Secondly, some media have, incorrectly l think, considered the assembly to be a "toy" of Minister of Government Reform Pechtold as his party D66, being a minor party in the coalition, has seen few of its plans executed so far this term. This is a shame as we are independent from Minister Pechtold and also because I think the very success of the assembly is largely dependent on its reputation and its acceptance by the public. Thus, media attention is in my view essential. Hopefully we can generate more media attention in the coming weeks and months!
Once again, a lot of text, but hopefully informative!