by Michael Loevinsohn
That’s east of Cumberland, and many meters lower. That’s where I’m writing from: a town called Wageningen in the middle of the Netherlands on one of the branches of the Rhine. A university town, about the size of Campbell River, where I’ve been living for most of the last 10 years.
I know the Island well and come by my affection honestly. I hiked what was then the Life Saving Trail, wonderfully unimproved, from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, alone, when I was 18. On my last visit with my wife and youngest son, we spent a few days in Alert Bay, where the world’s tallest totem pole rose over the empty residential school – since demolished – and spoke with one of the men who had carved the pole.
My sojourn here is now too long to call an accident and far longer than I ever imagined. It’s been a minor counter-current to the usual flow of humanity of which my parents were part. My father stopped off in The Hague in August 1939, a refugee from Germany on his way to England, where he was interned after Dunkirk and eventually shipped to Canada. We – my wife, kids and I – used to live in The Hague (one of the few places, along with The Island, that gets to claim the definite article) just up the road from the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia where my eldest son and I watched Slobodan Milosevic stand trial. The experience affected them both. Daniel went on to practice public interest law. Milosevic opted for a massive heart attack before he could be sentenced.
So the conceit of this column is that my view, from here, can offer an interesting perspective on issues affecting The Island and BC. Binocular vision is one way to gain some depth.
It’s hard to imagine two places more different. The population density here is 20 times that of The Island and more than a quarter of the country is below sea level. You need imagination to see wild. There’s not much free food on offer.
As opposed say, to the trail up from Cumberland beyond the old China Town. Guided by The Word’s publisher (and editor and chief distributor, with whom I am still in fierce contract negotiations), we sampled five species of berries and varieties thereof.
The berries here, not as diverse, are mostly grown in greenhouses, which light up the night. This country does intensive: always adding value. For a long time, it also added land – enclosing and then draining polders – pumping them dry with windmills. That stopped 50 years ago but the waterschappen that govern the polders remain, predating all political bodies and often cutting across their boundaries. They have always reached decision by consensus – a necessity because everybody had to maintain the dykes and ditches.
Consensus is literally in the water and permeates Dutch politics and its voting system. It has pure proportional representation with a very low threshold for entry into Parliament. No party since the Second World War has achieved a majority of the votes and governed on its own.
The Dutch went to the polls in March this year, six weeks before BC. The outcome was a more even split among the 13 parties in Parliament: four at least were needed to form a majority government. The last government achieved that with just two parties.
The coalition that emerged has a majority of one seat in the 150 seat Parliament. It’s headed by the rightish, market-oriented VVD which came first in the election; Mark Rutte, its leader, is now prime minister for the third time. The other partners are the slightly left-of-centre D66 and the right-of-centre CDA who tied with each other for third place and the much smaller Christen Unie – difficult to classify: reactionary on e.g. abortion; progressive on e.g. international development and immigration.
It took 225 day after the election – a national record – to reach agreement on policies and a cabinet of ministers to carry them out. It took the NDP and Greens only 20 days to reach their agreement after the May election. Not bad for a province renowned for its polarized politics, in a country where “coalition” is often derided as undemocratic (viz. Harper’s diatribe in 2008, effectively seeing off the embryonic NDP-Liberal discussions). Of course, there was really only one way the discussion could go in BC and a narrower ideological divide to bridge than in the Netherlands.
The coalition process here is well-trod. It has a cast of characters – informateur and formateur – who guide the process of sausage making, most of it behind closed doors. The smaller parties generally share a calculus: do we join the dance (with 4 partners – a square dance) or sit this one out? Do we gain more inside where we compromise but run the risk of being compromised or stay outside, maintaining the purity of our voice but watching, with our frustrated supporters, as worse policies are enacted than had we gotten in there and dirtied our hands?
Rutte has his own calculus which seems to be: keep your enemies close. He wanted the GroenLinks (Green Left) inside. The biggest winners in the election, they more than tripled their votes and seats to just over 9%, emerging as the largest party on the fractured left after the D66. But they finally bailed out after 3 months of talks and walks.
Jesse Klaver (= Clover) is the 31 year old leader of GroenLinks. Give him a haircut and an easier smile and he could almost pass for the Right Hon Sunny Ways. He had a lot to do with the party’s rapid rise –mostly among the young and around universities.
The official line is that immigration was the stumbling block. Klaver says climate change and inequality were also but his distaste for Rutte was evident from the start. Inside, he would have been continuously pushing back against a right-wing majority, he said in a recent interview.
“It sounds like you could only join a coalition with like-minded people. Being in a cabinet always means compromising, doesn’t it?”
“We’re working for a stronger left, a stronger GroenLinks”. Not this dance, thanks – and with a one-vote majority, the new coalition may not last very long. He aims to build a movement, broadening the party’s base beyond its young, well-educated main demographic to the gewone nederlander, the ordinary Dutch, as ill-defined and playing a similar as “middle class” in Canadian politics.
The challenge of building a coherent and progressive agenda bridging the economic, social and environmental issues that have often divided the left and environmentalists is broadly similar here and in BC and Canada. Inequality has grown massively, the sway of large companies is now much greater than labour’s and despite the greening rhetoric, large interests slow the transition from incumbent technologies and ways of thinking. Of course, important details differ. Resource extraction mostly happens elsewhere, not next door: Shell has its headquarters in The Hague but the oil wells are in places like the Niger Delta. And there’s little temptation to develop hydro in Holland.
GroenLinks is not the only party seeking to build a movement. The PVV, Party for Freedom, of Geert Wilders stokes resentment against the EU, against immigrants and especially against Islam. Wilders asked an election crowd a few years ago, “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans?”
“Fewer!” they chanted back.
“We’ll arrange it.”
BC will vote on proportional representation in a referendum later this year. Bill Tielman, writing in the Tyee recently, argues that PR helps far-right parties gain a presence in parliament that they wouldn’t have under a first-past-the-post voting system. The Liberals in Ottawa, justifying their turnaround on changing the system last year, also raised the spectre of an alt-right or splinter party holding the balance of power under PR.
The PVV is firmly in the Dutch parliament: it gained 13% of the vote and seats last March. There’s no doubt it has contributed to growing incivility, in and outside parliament. But it didn’t create it. Rather it helped expose tolerance in the country as more superficial than many Dutch had believed.
The PVV came second in the election but has come no closer to power. Before and after the election, the leaders of all the major parties said they would not join a coalition with it. That’s not to say that it couldn’t happen but no voting system is proof against extremists gaining power. In the US, a right-wing extremist rode FPTP to the presidency with a minority of the votes. And FPTP’s biases work in all directions: they’ve long been effective in limiting the voice of green and left parties in BC and across Canada.
Turnout was up in both elections but it was 82% in the Netherlands, 20 points higher than BC. That no vote is wasted has something to do with that I’d say, having voted in both systems.
But it’s a less dramatic politics. Like the landscape.