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12 December 2011
Government has to be more open, transparent and accountable: Marietje Schaake (D66)

By Daan de Wit
Translated by Ben Kearney

All throughout the world, change is in the air. This change is manifesting itself in the form of the Arab Spring and in the Occupy movement, but also in documentaries such as Four HorsemenCollapse, Thrive and The Secret of Oz. At all sorts of levels, consideration is being given to all of the different ways that things could be different. There is a realization that our freedom is quite relative and that things ought to be different - ought to be better - but how?

Marietje Schaake [jpg]One fundamental problem is formed by our political system. While maintaining such a critical role in society, it fails us time and time again, often with disastrous consequences. Politicians agree to go along with foreign adventures that are costly in terms of both blood and treasure, and would seem to be more positively disposed toward the financial sector than toward the citizens that they nominally represent.

Whoever chooses to look beyond the PR will see that we are living in the illusion of democracy, as Dutch reporter Gerard van Westerloo concluded in the NRC Handelsblad in 2002, after having spoken with dozens of political science professors. Each of them came to the same conclusion: politics has been reduced to governing, the rulers slide each other jobs, and parliament barely exercises any control at all anymore. The since-deceased Professor Daudt spoke of a ruling class and warned the Netherlands ‘against the use of slogans to make it out to be something that it is not: a democracy with representatives of the people.'

Van Westerloo’s article makes it clear that the thing we call democracy is not democracy at all, and that democracy is something that has to be realized outside the sphere of politics. Yet proactive thinking on the part of those operating inside the ruling establishment can nevertheless be a positive thing. This is exactly what Marietje Schaake, European Member of Parliament for the Dutch political party D66, contributes in her article on transparency in the NRC Handelsblad. She writes: ‘The closed, vertical system of governance must be opened up. A small, effective government earns the trust of the citizenry and makes governmental reform a reality: to go from being the governed to being the governors!' 

I ask Schaake what she means by being the governors and whether she has any thoughts on what that ought to look like. Another interesting quote from her article deals with a draft resolution that she posted online. ‘People from all over the world contributed their ideas on a draft text that in the end was brought before a vote in the European Parliament. The experiment was a success. This kind of collaboration needs to become an intergral part of the system.'

Listen to the interview [in Dutch] with Marietje Schaake
Transcript: Quinten Zorge

Daan de Wit: 'Today is Saturday, November 26, 2011 and my name is Daan de Wit. With me today is Marietje Schaake, European MP for the D66. Marietje, you wrote a very nice piece for NRC Next on Friday, November 18. To quote from it: ‘The closed, vertical system of governance must be opened up. A small, effective government earns the trust of the citizenry and makes governmental reform a reality: to go from being the governed to being the governors!' What do you mean by this?

Schaake: I think that there are an awful lot of opportunities for making government more open, and thereby more transparent and more accountable. When you look at how many people feel distanced from their government today, how many people have lost faith and feel like their voices aren’t being heard, I believe it is essential that we seize on the opportunities that are out there, such as those offered by new media to make more information available, to get people more involved, to create ad hoc coalitions to address specific issues. It’s actually an appeal to governments and politicians to do this, because in practice you most often see precisely the opposite.

De Wit: But then you’re back to counting on the government again. As citizens, shouldn’t we simply be saying: 'We have to take back our own power’? The Occupy movement talks about ‘the 1 percent and the 99 percent’. Should not that 99 percent take pains - one way or another - to stop forking over the power that they do have, given that they practically form an absolute majority? Because that’s what you do when you vote: you give away your vote to a few regents who then shut themselves off from you. They talk about wanting to get out and connect with ‘the people’ and ‘the country’, which then doesn’t work. Shouldn’t we reclaim this power, one way or another?

Schaake: Of course it’s great when people are so concerned that they want things to be different - this is, I think, a very unique moment that we have in front of us. But I also believe that there is a lot of diversity to be found among our popular representatives. But I think it might be a little premature to say that everyone in politics is some kind of regent. And of course the big question is: What are people actually prepared to do in terms of making a lasting contribution to a different way of doing things? Because it’s easy to talk about how things shouldn’t be, but it’s not always so easy to talk about how they should be.

De Wit, 2'20: Some rethinking is needed these days. Couldn’t we accomplish this in a more radical way through less and less politics? Because that still seems to be the crux of the problem. You can see the role that politics plays in the economy. The bankers - they are being called banksters - they are always being singled out, but you might as well accept the fact that there are always going to be stealing and misleading bankers. That’s a given. There are always going to be crooks and others who want to steal from you, but the idea would be that you would arrange it so as to minimize the chances for these people to steal, so that there is sound oversight in place. This has failed, and so politics has failed in doing this as well. So do we have to get rid of this political system somehow?

Schaake: Yes, I understand what you’re saying, and as I indicated before, I’m in favor of major reforms. So I don’t want to pretend that that would be a big non-starter for me personally. But to say: We should do away with politics completely... Well, then we would need to come up with a good alternative.

Occupy bull on ropes [jpg]De Wit: Right, because that’s the problem, isn’t it: the alternative. We see this with the Occupy movement - they aren’t sure what the alternative is either, they just know that the system we currently have is wrong. I heard reports for instance about an Occupy situation in England in which they wanted to make a decision about something, and through mutual consultation said that they didn’t want to do this by way of a delegation. Anyone who was dead-set against it could fold their arms in front their chest and got a special hearing. In the end, they did create a delegation, but they went back to the collective to make the decision. You have a good example of the collective yourself. Being a European MP, you presented a draft text to the collective, as well as to the people you know via Twitter, and together they introduced all sorts of constructive changes. You then submitted this draft text, didn’t you?

Schaake: That’s right, but in doing that there are a few elements of democracy that are still intact which are very important. And what you are saying about the Occupy movement, the alternative and not wanting a delegation: a risk you run in these situations is that the voice of the majority drowns out everyone else. A democracy can be judged by the degree to which it takes the minority view into consideration. This is really essential, we shouldn’t overlook this. And also with these draft texts - I put them on the internet and threw them open for suggestions. But as a popular representative, I am ultimately responsible for choosing suggestions that I want to bring forward. Another example would be government budgets. People of course feel that a lot of money is being wasted, and that the American government has said: ‘take a look at our budget. If you can find any money that is being wasted, then let us know about it’. Examples: duplicate expenditures, or things that could be acquired for considerably less money?

De Wit: Couldn’t you also see it as step #1, the example of the budget, for instance. Because step #2 could be that you take a look at the U.S. government budget and find out that half, or according to some estimates, three-quarters is spent on defense. It is spent in one way, shape or form on bombs and artillery shells, on radar systems etc. These are all used, or not, or they explode. All of it wasted money. The 'broken windows fallacy': You break a window and say ‘this is good for the economy’ because now you get to pay someone to fix the window. But it is not good for the economy because if the window had never been broken, you wouldn’t have had to spend money to get it fixed. So could the second phase be one in which we take a fundamental look at all of these kinds of issues?

Schaake, 5'40: You could then contribute ideas regarding the budget, about what it should look like. This is already happening in a number of smaller cities, in which a portion of the town’s budget is determined by the people themselves. It works like this: A third of the budget is devoted to public works projects, and then the people are allowed to figure out what those should be. But here you can also see how people have to work together and have to reach a consensus, and this kind of decision-making process still looks suspiciously like a democratic system. But this way you do put the budget - to which the people contribute themselves via taxes, etc. - in front of the people for them to fill in themselves.

De Wit: Could we devise a democratic system in which we would not so much relinquish the power into the hands of a few people but in which the masses would retain the power? Because your draft law was also a sort of ‘Wiki-democracy’. Just like Wikipedia: A glaring error gets rectified in no time. Wouldn't it be possible to create some sort of ‘Wiki-democracy’?

Schaake:  You could employ some sort of mechanism like that. But then there would need to be more openness within the current systems, and consideration would need to be given as to how to flesh that out. Part of the established order would then have to be willing to relinquish a part of their own status, and I don’t think that is going to be welcomed by the powers that be. I think that what we are now seeing is that Occupy and other movements are actually really shaking up the system. And I hope - and invite - the powers that be to welcome this, instead of sitting back and thinking: ‘Help, what are going to do about all these weirdos?’ I think it’s a good idea to figure out: What is the core message? Not just with Occupy, but also in many other areas. People are losing faith in political parties, in politicians that are quick to throw their principles out the window in service to the majority. People are feeling restless. They can organize and mobilize much more quickly via the internet, so this is a moment in which an awful lot is possible. I think it would be nice if this were to be embraced by the current group of politicians and the government - this does happen sometimes, it’s not always a clash - and that it be embraced on a larger scale, and then we could see whether or not it would indeed lead to more participation and thereby arrive at a common solution.

De Wit, 8'15: Actually, you yourself are an example of this. Because in a certain sense you are a part of the powers that be, yet you would be willing to possibly give up your entire political existence for this if necessary, right?

Schaake: Yes, I am quite willing to take a look at how things could be better. And I don’t see my own position within this system as being sacrosanct.

Daan: Marietje Schaake, European MP for Democrats 66, thank you very much for talking with me today.'

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