Climate a main topic in first election debate

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The first debate for the Provincial State elections of 20 March, which will ultimately also determine the composition of the Senate, happened on RTL on Thursday. The climate was one of the main points that the leaders of the VVD, CDA, D66, PVV, SP, PvdA and FvD debated, reports.

D66 leader Rob Jetten called on Jesse Klaver and GroenLinks to team up with his party in the area of climate after the Provincial States elections. "We have to make sure that we get [VVD leader Klaas Dijkhoff] to tax pollution, shut down coal fired power plants and maybe even implement road pricing", Jetten said. He hopes that with Klaver on his side, they can convince Dijkhoff to take more ambitious climate measures.

Over the past months the VVD has been increasingly skeptical about the climate agreement, which has yet to be concluded. Road pricing - taxing motorists for the kilometers they drive - is even a taboo for the Liberals, according to the newspaper. In the coalition agreement it was made clear that road pricing will not be introduced in this cabinet period. The plans for the draft climate agreement are currently being calculated for feasibility by the Netherlands' planning offices. The results are expected on March 13th. After that, parliament and the government will discuss the plans before a final agreement is concluded. 

On March 20th, the Netherlands will elect the members of the Provincial States, who in turn will elect a new Senate in May. Trends in the polls show that the Rutte III coalition of VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie will likely lose their current one-seat majority in the Senate. If that happens, the government will need support from at least one  opposition party to implement their plans.

"We will be needed after 20 March", GroenLinks leader Klaver said on Thursday. The green party is willing to help the coalition to a majority on some points, but one thing must happen first. "Large companies have to pay a CO2 tax. That is the only way they contribute to climate change", Klaver said. On Thursday morning 17 large Dutch companies published an open letter in the Volkskrant, calling on the government not to implement a tax on CO2 emissions. According to the companies, this will result in job losses, among other things. 

VVD leader Klaas Dijkhoff is not immediately convinced of the usefulness of a CO2 tax. "You can tax companies so heavily that they eventually leave the country. Then jobs disappear and CO2 is still released into the air abroad." Dijkhoff wants to tax businesses in a "smart way". The VVD leader wants to wait for planning agencies' calculations on the climate agreement plans before he decides what is the best way to tax companies.

According to Jetten, that the VVD is discussing climate measures at all is a win. "Two years ago, the VVD did not want to know anything about climate policy. Now they are in a coalition with D66 and ChristenUnie and the VVD is slowly coming to a green position."

How the various parties' stance on climate change will affect the election results, remains to be seen. A recent poll by I&O Research showed that the number of Dutch people who are worried about climate change decreased significantly over the past months, while the group who thinks that the government is too focused on reducing emissions is growing.

During the debate, PVV leader Geert Wilders accused the government of not fulfilling its promise that ordinary Dutch people will notice the economic progress in their wallet. Wilders referred to the increased energy bill, but also to a promise previously made by Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) that every Dutch person would get 1 thousand euros. 

As Dijkhoff represented the VVD in the debate, Rutte could not respond to this accusation himself. Dijkhoff said that he agrees the Dutch should start to feel the end of the economic crisis. At the same time he pointed to recent figures stating that purchasing power is increasing by an average of 1.6 percent this year

PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, Wilders, CDA leader Sybrand Buma, and SP leader Lilian Marijnissen also debated about the statement that the three Rutte cabinets neglected the public sector - police, education, and healthcare. Remarkably, Asscher - Deputy Prime Minister in Rutte III - agreed with this statement. Buma did not. "Yes there are problems", he said. "But we have to be honest, the healthcare, police and education are not neglected." He pointed out that the government is investing heavily in the public sector.

The parties also debated about Dutch traditions like New Year's fireworks and Zwarte Piet. While Wilders and Dijkhof argued that these traditions must be retained and protected, Asscher and Klaver were of the opinion that this topic was misleading the voters watching the debate. "This argument makes no sense", Asscher said. He is disappointed that RTL put this topic in the debate. "We're doing the voter harm with this statement. This statement has nothing to do with the upcoming election." Klaver said: "More and more people are struggling to make ends meet. Traditions are important. But this debate does not reduce rent and does not reduce healthcare costs."