Dutch PM survives broad motion of censure in dividend tax debate

Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Sebastiaan ter Burg)Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Sebastiaan ter Burg)

The entire opposition, with the exception of the SGP, supported a motion of censure against Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a parliamentary debate about secret memos surrounding the Rutte III government's decision to abolish dividend tax, NU.nl reports.

In the end 67 parliamentarians voted for the motion on Wednesday. All 76 members of the coalition parties VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie voted against. While Rutte can continue as Prime Minister without censure, his reputation suffered more damage. Especially after various previous political scandals with the VVD at its center, like the controversy that surrounded former Justice State Secretary Fred Teeven and a payoff deal he made with a drug baron and former VVD Minister Halbe Zijlstra lying about being at a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"Rutte has not served the credibility of politicians. His reputation suffered a great deal of damage", PVV leader Geert Wilders said in the debate, according to the newspaper.

"There were several times that the Prime Minister could have corrected his mistake and did not do it", said GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver.

"Confidence in the Prime Minister is gone", said SP leader Lilian Marijnissen.

PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, and Rutte's Deputy Prime Minister in the previous cabinet, accused the Prime Minister of lying. "The truth was not told. The Prime Minister is responsible for that."

In the debate, Rutte and VVD Minister Eric Wiebes had to justify their role in the drafting and releasing of memos used in the decision to abolish dividend tax - tax companies pay on profits paid to shareholders. This decision was made during the Rutte III government formation. The opposition asked for these memos, because they wanted clarification on the abolition of this tax. The abolition was in none of the four government parties' election program, costs the treasury 1.4 billion euros per year, and the opposition feels that the coalition never sufficiently justified this decision.

Over the past months the coalition party leaders - Rutte (VVD), Sybrand Buma (CDA), Alexander Pechtold (D66), and Gert-Jan Segers (ChristenUnie) - said that they could not remember such memos, giving the impression that they don't exist. On Friday newspaper Trouw revealed that these memos do exist, and the government was forced to release them. This happened on Tuesday.

Both Rutte and Wiebes admitted that they made mistakes while debating with parliament on Wednesday. According to Rutte, he should have went looking for the documents immediately after the debate in November, when he told the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, that he did not remember them for the first time. "That would have been better", he said, according to NU.nl. Looking back, the Prime Minister thinks he should never have brought his memories into this, and just said from the start that these memos were documents that should not be included in the public information files. According to him, the memos should not have been made public, because they provide insight into political positions and the negotiation process, which must take place in the seclusion of a government formation.

Wiebes also had to explain himself. On Friday he said that he was not part of the negotiations on abolishing dividend tax, and gave the impression that he had no knowledge about the existence of documents about this measure. But the documents released on Tuesday revealed that Wiebes, then still State Secretary of Finance, drafted a memo on the abolition of dividend tax based on various official documents from the Ministries of Finance and Economic Affairs. Rutte used that memo to convince the CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie to agree with the abolition during the formation.

That specific memo is now being called a "VVD party piece", according to the newspaper.

Wiebes told the Kamer that he was confused on Friday. "That was not my sharpest performance", he said. "I did not handle that well."

Rutte still maintained that he can not remember any of the memos that were released, with the exception of the "VVD party piece". "That piece from my party I really judge differently", he said. He says he did not recognize the memos in which officials from the Ministry of Finance raised doubts about the abolition of the dividend tax. 

Pechtold and Segers also said they only recognized the "VVD party piece". Buma struggled to remember and did not want to speculate on when and how these memos were discussed. "I do not want to contribute more to the fog", he said. All three coalition partners agreed that Rutte should have acted differently and not have brought his memories into this. That said, there was little criticism from the coalition parties on the Prime Minister's actions in this affair.