2019 New Year's speech of Jaap Smit

2019 New Year's speech of Jaap Smit,
the King’s Commissioner in Zuid-Holland
The Hague, 9 January 2019

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to welcome you here in the Provincial Government Building.

Looking back over the past year and ahead, to this new year, I think back to my time in barracks in Northern Germany where, from 1988 to 1992, I worked as a spiritual carer with the Limburgse Jagers battalion in Seedorf.

The battalion won every competition held: these included the Bartels Cup (a type of military triathlon), the Menno Coehoorn Prize (for mortar firing) and many others, of which I’ve forgotten the name.
It was fantastic and we were at, or near the top of every list.
Everything was going amazingly well. Or so everyone thought…

One morning, I walked into the Commander’s office, closed the door and stood in front of his desk. I told him: “The people and your battalion are not doing so well…” He looked at me and at started to grunt: “What do you mean? We’re winning everything. Things have never gone this well before.”

I answered: “Yes, that’s true. But it’s only half of the story. Your trophy cabinet is filling up and almost too small, but around me I’m hearing lots of complaints about exhausted people, and supporting services on their last legs. They’re the ones creating the conditions that are enabling you to win with your people. But they can’t keep it up much longer…”

He sat down and listened to what I had to say. When all of the thousand men and women were next on parade, he looked at them and said, “Things are going well. In fact, things couldn’t be going better. Yet, things are also not going well at all…

For the past five years, I’ve been in a different type of barracks and, once again, have the urge to walk into the Commander’s office and have a similar conversation.

Mr Rutte, Mark, I need to tell you something…Things are going fantastically.
Let me start by saying that. Our score, when it comes to accessibility and approachability has gone up - again. Municipalities and other partners are increasingly happy to work with us, and know where to find us. We’re are also leaving behind the ‘boxes’ that restrained us for all too long, and are now getting a better overview of our tasks and our responsibilities as a whole.

We have risen to second place in the list of most innovative regions in the Netherlands. And, next year, we’re going to overtake our friends from North Brabant, I can assure you.

In the past few years, the collaboration with the metropolitan region Rotterdam-The Hague has grown to become an accepted fact, with excellent relations between the players. This collaboration is giving considerable impulse to our joint efforts with the South-Holland Economic Board, Innovation Quarter and the various regions in the province, to shape our common ambitions.

Unemployment has decreased significantly and economic prospects are good, albeit that we do need to step up our efforts a notch in our province, to maintain the pace.

So, in many aspects, I’m very happy with, and proud of this ‘amazingly cool’ province…

Our Prime Minister refers to our country and democracy as a ‘delicate vase’, and everyone now recognises that image. A delicate vase; beautiful and yet at the same time, fragile. Not some kind of plastic contraption that can take a few knocks. No. A delicate vase. Something we need to handle with care and must never allow to drop…

In addition to this image of a vase, I’d also like to add a second image. Namely, that of an old-fashioned stone-pottery hot water bottle that continues to soak up water until it cracks. In other words: things are going on that are putting our delicate vase in danger.
We can see this happening. But what can we do to turn the tide…?
Should we simply accept everything, under the pretext of freedom and tolerance?

Is unrestricted behaviour just a part of this day and age?

Are our end of year celebrations now an excuse for some people to go completely mad? And should we accept this?

Will it become the new norm to ask ourselves if information is reliable: what’s true and what isn’t? Should we be continuously warey of all the news that reaches us through the numerous different channels?
Is anything certain any more, now that science and religion, in the eyes of some, are potentially ending up in the same category: namely that of ‘belief’?

(Incidentally, it’s fascinating, or perhaps even bizarre, that the age-old conflict between religion and science has now been resolved by declaring both to be a ‘belief’.)

You either have it or you don’t. And whether or not you attach any value to your belief is purely subjective.

Everything is, after all, ‘merely’ an opinion. And opinions can differ.
‘I’m right, you’re right,’ to paraphrase a slogan from the 60s: ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’. (By the way, there also seems to be a publication from 2010 with the title: ‘I’m okay, you’re an idiot’.)

Out delicate vase needs to be looked after and cared for gently!

Being at, or near the top of all the lists, means things are going really well.

But some things are also not going so well…

Yes, ‘I’m well, but we’re not’, as Paul Schnabel aptly describes in his book.

Be careful! Don’t put our vase so dangerously close to the edge of the table!

Otherwise it will fall and shatter…!

I often use the term: ‘think big’, and with that I mean that, in these complex times, we shouldn’t be narrow-minded, and we shouldn’t shut ourselves off from the world around us.

The old dikes and walls that some in the Netherlands want to hide behind, won’t provide the rest and safety they seek, nor will they bring a return to the romanticised image of yesteryear.

Today, it’s about seeing developments, climbing the mountain and then translating what you see into understandable and bite-sized resolutions and plans in response to what’s happening.
This is what Herman Tjeenk Willink also describes in his book: Groter denken kleiner doen (‘Think bigger, do less’). Unfortunately, it’s currently only available in Dutch, but I highly recommend it to Dutch readers among us. Tjeenk Willink describes how careless we’ve been in recent decades when it comes to dealing with the preconditions necessary for our democracy and rule of law to function well.

At the heart of this is the question of what still binds our society, now that the traditional Dutch ‘pillared’ structures have disappeared.

He reaches the conclusion that our rule of law with its firmly set norms and values is what still binds us together. If we lose these, then things go wrong.

If you’re careless with everything that contributes to the proper functioning of our democracy and rule of law for too long, then the vase will eventually fall over the edge.

During the past decades, belief in market forces has become enormous. We have an entrepreneurial government that runs what we refer to in Dutch as ‘BV Nederland’ - ‘The Netherlands Ltd.’ as a huge company. Efficiency and modern management theories have found their way into and seeped through the operational activities of the care sector, education, policing, the judiciary, etc.

This has gone too far and has led to alienation and dissatisfaction among those working in the sectors I mention, as well as among the ‘customers’ of these services. Moreover, I have objected for a while to the view that the relationship between government and residents is one of ‘customer-supplier’. The government is all of us, and for all of us!

The large numbers and averages all look good, but the individual often feels lost and confused in the various systems. We long for, and we need to return to the human dimension. We need to get rid of distrust and excessive checks, and return to a situation of trust with room for professionality. And it’s obvious that this will cost money, but that’s part of the proper maintenance of the prerequisites for a healthy democracy and rule of law!

(We can, of course, ask ourselves what the excessive urge to control costs anyway.)

The Netherlands is no longer a company, but a rather highly civilized society. And such a level civilization demands a strong and healthy government that leads and serves the collective we form as a society in a proper and dignified way. In such a way that people don’t miss the boat and where the individual doesn’t disappear in the system of automated processes.

The adage mustn’t be a ‘small government’, but rather a ‘strong and healthy government’, run not as a company focussed on profit, but as a guardian of law, safety, development and care with a human dimension.

A government whose role is not limited to one of solely management, and that needs to buy in every competency or scrap of knowledge in the market, but one with the necessary expertise and, therefore, able to operate with authority.

Our democracy and rule of law are currently frequent topics of conversation. They are the components of that delicate vase and, at the same time, the strength behind our society.

Democracy requires effort from all of us.
It’s good that the Remkes commission has come up with a series of improvement proposals to make our democracy healthy and to keep it that way. But irrespective of any proposals you come up with, this process also requires involvement and effort from us all.

Democracy is not a party game that needs to be made appealing to the players, (which reminds me of the music groups in the church aimed at attracting a younger congregation). I can assure you: this doesn’t work…

Democracy is about living more in the knowledge that you, as a resident, are jointly responsible for the collective, which we form as society. You can’t just stay on the side-lines and then criticise all those who do take responsibility as being the ‘power-hungry elite’.

We also need to think about the modernisation and maintenance of our democratic process but, above all, what matters is that we all believe in it and are prepared to work for it. This is also part of why the vase is so delicate.

There is also a curious paradox when it comes modern-day democracies. We see it happening around us. We want more say and participation yet, at the same time, many people are seeking refuge in authoritarian leaders who seem to take little notice of the democratic process.

People are looking for a story they can relate to; a person who inspires them and with whom they can identify; someone who leads them and, where necessary, takes them by the hand; and who is also prepared to draw the line if they need to. And it’s this last aspect that’s often hard as there’s a fear of alienating people.

We spend hours in discussions aimed at generating support. We continuously listen to what polls are saying and then try to say what we think the people want to hear.

But this is not the way to cultivate respect and trust! Yes, it’s is good, and it’s important to constantly connect with society. However, this should not only be about listening, but also about communicating a strong and convincing story.

Otherwise people will lose their way in today’s complicated world.
I don’t believe that everyone wants to join in the conversation about every topic. Many will say or think: “You sort it out, that’s what you’re there for.” Or “Come with a good initiative, one that I can do something about, and that makes me feel like I’m being taken seriously.”

Many are looking for direction, and leaders who recognise their insecurities and are able to contain them. Not all of us are cosmopolitans who prefer to freely make their own individual choices.

A valuable delicate vase and a hot water bottle lying in the water…
This is no indication of strength. We may not confidently assume that everything will remain okay because, at some point, the hot water bottle will crack and the vase will fall and shatter.

There’s no need to panic, but there is every reason to stay alert. And this is the plea I would like to end on: I don’t need to go to visit our Commander-in-Chief in his Tower for a ‘good chat’. The responsibility lies not only with our Prime Minister, but equally with people like you and me.

We live in a country where we can say what we like. That’s a great asset, but it doesn’t mean that we need to accept everything that is said.

Don’t be afraid to challenge others if they try to twist the facts. Don’t be afraid to challenge anyone who says anything that violates our constitution. And, as a politician, leader and public servant, don’t be afraid to present a strong case and guide people towards solutions to modern-day issues.

Don’t make it personal as this taints the political image considerably. Play a fair game and listen with natural curiosity to what others have to say, in order to find out for yourself if their proposal might help the cause. And don’t let profitability be the determining factor in our thinking and in our actions, but rather what society can gain.

Finally: on March 20th we return to the ballot box for the Provincial States and Water Board elections and, later this year, for election to the European Parliament. I wish all those participating a good and honourable campaign, one that won’t about the performance of the current cabinet, but rather about matters that are important here in our province.
I look forward to seeing the composition of the new provincial government and the executive. I will continue to work together with everyone here to ensure that we are seen and continue to be seen as part of the strong and healthy government that knows what’s going on in society and is able to come up with a good case.

Ladies and gentlemen, 2019 is the 6th year of my role as the King’s Commissioner in this beautiful province. This raises the question of whether I would like to continue after my first term. That’s easy to answer: I feel very much at home here, connected to the province and the people who live and work in it and for it. I, therefore, hope that next year’s New Year's speech will be the first of my 2nd term!
I look forward to continuing to work on building up our strong and impressive province for years to come. A province that I am proud of!

Good luck in all your endeavours in this new year!