'Sleepwet' referendum demonstrates why Parliament isn't doing its job

30 March 2018

'Sleepwet' referendum demonstrates why Parliament isn't doing its job

In the Sleepwet campaign the politicians in The Hague failed to show their best side. Gert-Jan Segers of the centre-right Christian Union said that those who opposed the Sleepwet (which the Dutch electorate voted against in the referendum) would have some explaining to do should our country be subject to an attack. The same party's leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma said prior to the referendum that the CDA would take no notice of the result. Premier Mark Rutte, of the VVD, also a centre-right party, went so far as to compare the referendum to an old-fashioned hobby such as tatting. Kees Verhoeven of the centrist D66, a party which once made the demand for referenda central to its politics, showed himself to be an exceptionally bad loser when he tweeted after the vote that the majority for 'no' wasn't really a majority at all.

- By Ronald van Raak

Sewing fear amongst the people, treating the referendum with condescension, not being willing to listen to the population: we've said it before, in relation to the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 and the referendum on the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine in 2016, and we're saying it again in this referendum on the Sleepwet. In a mature democracy politicians attempt to persuade people with arguments, and if the people say 'no' to something, they drop it. This referendum demonstrates why our democracy isn't mature. It demonstrates why in this country we so badly need referenda.

The turnout was high and the result clear: the Netherlands has rejected the proposed law. This was definitively confirmed on Thursday by the official Electoral Council. But the 'no' vote does not suit the image that many politicians have of themselves, in which the Netherlands is seen as a true democracy and an example to other countries, and our parliament represents a proper reflection of the population and policies can count on a great deal of support amongst the people. That self-image takes a hefty blow when that population keeps saying 'no' in referenda to laws which are heavily supported in parliament. Parliament does indeed have a major problem: not the referenda, but the fact that what repeatedly emerges is the fact that its Members hold very different opinions to those of the voters. Shortly these same Members will have to decide what they are going to do about the referendum result The unfocused storage of data from innocent members of the public would strike a blow against our democracy and our constitutional state. You simply can't do that when the people have spoken explicitly out against it. This referendum also allows us to see once again that our parliament isn't doing its job properly and needs to conduct a discussion on its role as the representative of the people.

Parliament voted in favour of the government's proposal to abolish the right of referendum, at the same time denying the people the chance to express their views on the measure in a referendum. I had a great deal of criticism to make of this when I spoke against the abolition in Parliament, and my remarks were supported by experts on constitutional law. But Parliament would not listen to these experts. Now the Senate is moving on this, and this week held a hearing in which expert speakers were clearly unimpressed by Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren of D66's proposal to repeal the referendum law. That the government is abolishing a democratic right over the heads of the people was called 'scandalous', 'unnecessarily blunt' and 'unjustifiable'.

I was once a Senator myself and so know roughly how the Senate thinks. When it comes to important political decisions, the Senate is happy to leave such things to the lower house, the main legislative chamber. But if it concerns constitutional issues, the Senators believe that they have a better grasp. I don't think that the Senate is going to prevent the abolition, but it would be a fine thing were a number of Senators from the VVD, CDA, Christian Union or D66 to play a straight constitutional bat and refuse to accept the repeal. I feel it, it's going to come – that referendum on the referendum.

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