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Liekuut | The province: a peculiar level of government with an image problem

10 July 2023
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Herman Bröring

In ‘Liekuut’, which is the Groningen dialect for straight ahead or straightforward, we share the perspective of one of our academics on a topical issue every month. This is how we show that UG researchers contribute to the societal debate.

Now that the coalitions in the Dutch provinces have formed, the provincial councils can get to work. But what powers do the provincial councils have? According to Herman Bröring, Professor of Administrative Law at the UG, the province is a level of government that is not always understood by its residents, despite the fact that it has an important function.  However, he does consider the link between the provincial council elections and the Dutch Senate elections problematic.  

Worst of both worlds

‘The province is stuck between two important levels of public administration: the national government and the municipality.  The province seems to suffer from what is often called the 'onderofficieren-syndroom [petty officer syndrome]. It assumes a position between the national government and municipalities, which can create pressure from two sides at once  On top of that, the province has far less authority than the state and the municipalities — a worst of both worlds kind of situation. Citizens interact with their municipalities far more than their provinces, for that matter.  A good example in terms of the relation between the province and the national government can be found in the nitrogen policy. The province has some power in this area, but this power is limited by objectives determined by the government. Bearing this in mind, the Boer Burger Beweging's victory in the provincial council elections should not be overestimated.  And yet the province handles important matters, such as spatial planning, nature and environment, economic development, and culture.’

Powers of the province

‘The Province's difficult position is clearly illustrated by the province of Groningen's reactions to the parliamentary inquiry into the extraction of natural gas in Groningen. The reactions included much attention to the energy transition, Groningen as a hydrogen province, infrastructure, and economic support packages. Residents living in the gas extraction area were stunned.  Why was it not about their immediate problems: compensation for their damages and the reinforcement of their homes? That is precisely the point: when it comes to compensation and reinforcement, the province has no powers On the other hand, it does have a say in economic development and the future perspective of the province. However, just because you don't have the powers, doesn't mean you don't have a duty. It would therefore suit the province if it were to stand up more strongly for the residents affected by gas extraction. The province of Groningen has realized this by now.’

Choosing policy or choosing an electoral college?

‘Many voters don't know what the provincial council elections are about.  Important themes that are in the hands of the provincial council are hardly ever discussed during the provincial council elections.  Large wind farms were not a topic of discussion in my province, Drenthe, at the time. Mention nitrogen policy, and you are told that the Province of Drenthe must first await policy determined in The Hague. Mention expansion of the N34 highway, and you will be told that there is no money for it. Moreover, the political parties that joined the elections seemed to condone such depoliticization. At that point, the Drenthe constituent starts thinking that the provincial council elections are all about the wolf, and that the provincial council elections are little more than electing an electoral college: the election of a small group of voters, the Provincial Council, which in turn elects the members of another council, which is the Senate. That is not only bad for the province's image, but also for the provincial democracy as such.’

Reconsider the relation between elections

‘If you ask me, we should reconsider the relation between the Provincial council elections and the Senate elections. The so-called cushioning effect that indirect elections aims at, supposedly to influence political power relations only in a shock way, is in my view outdated. On top of that, since people are unable to directly vote for a representative, they are unaware who represents them in the Senate. The rise of regional parties also calls for a reconsideration of the relationship between these elections. Meanwhile, the provinces should keep making it clear what their responsibilities are, in particular spatial planning, nature and environment, economic development, and culture. In addition, the political parties that participate in the Provincial council elections should put more work into these matters. That would be in the interest of the province's image as well as of the provincial democracy.’

'Liekuut' opinion pieces overview

Last modified:07 July 2023 2.45 p.m.
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