New government goes on show

Edition 26 October 2017, by Bárbara Luque

The Netherlands have a new government with a whopping sixteen new ministers of state. About five of them will likely spend most of their term in office struggling to be taken seriously, fighting for resources like budget and manpower.

As this paper went to press the cabinet-Rutte III is about to present itself to the country. After seven long months of tough negotiations between four ideologically different political parties, they have finally hammered out a governing accord. Since all parties wish to leave their mark on policy and let their colours shine bright, a record sixteen secretaries of state will be appointed in this government: six for the liberal VVD, four each for the Christian Appeal (CDA) and Democrats 66 (D66) and two on behalf of junior partner ChristenUnie (CU). Most of them will be minister of a department, meaning they have real political power and budget; others will be minister for a policy theme and have almost no power.

In addition to sixteen ministers, there will also be nine deputy secretaries of state, bringing the total to twenty-five. As expected there will be made space for a special minister for climate and energy, one for agriculture and one for immigration and asylum. Another possibility is that the current ministry of Security and Justice (V&J) will be subdivided into three ministries: police, justice and one for immigration and integration. Another idea that has been floating around is to have a ministry of ‘Elderly and Family Affairs’. Historically speaking these policy-oriented portfolios have been created to keep governing coalition partners happy, but aside from the undersecretary of Developmental Aid they are usually not here to stay.

Third-term prime minister Mark Rutte is said to hate the idea of having different departments for some vague policy theme, which usually turns out to be a fad, not something that outlasts one government term. Previous governments with hobby theme ministers included the secretary of Residence, Neighbourhoods and Integration, one for Large Cities and Integration, for Administrative Renewal and Youth and Family. Often they were housed in the building of one of the more traditional ministries where they were provided with a minimal budget and assigned ‘second- rate’ civil servants. During the weekly cabinet meeting on Fridays these ministers for this theme or that policy can give their opinion about policy, but their position is often not seriously considered by their peers.

The new reality of a large cabinet is a break with Rutte’s previous two governments, which were smaller. The main problem with having many ministers according to the prime minister is that they will be looking for work in order to justify their salary, and he therefore prefers ‘a small and robust government where everybody is a bit too busy’. In fact, some of his previous co-ministers, like former Defence Secretary Hans Hillen, complained that they were over-worked, running from meeting to meeting implementing policy instead of creating it.

These complaints are unlikely to be heard this time around. Quite the opposite: those ministers without a real portfolio they can call their own will spend much time on bureaucratic infighting, if only to be heard and seen and considered. At the same time they will serve a fodder for the opposition in parliament deriding them as ‘Secretary for Show’ who can’t get anything done. And so for these unlucky ones their first days in office are most crucial. This is historically when the power of the ‘Minister For’ is decided. It’s of utter importance to have their ministerial competences formalized during the first cabinet meeting, to make sure that an autonomous and sufficient budget is created for their ministerial portfolio as well as competent civil manpower. And most importantly, the ‘guest minister’ needs to demand that he or she has access to the same information as the ‘host minister’ to prevent starting on the job with a fundamental disadvantage and be a lame duck secretary from day one.