Saturday, 19 October 2013

Musings on the Debatbond and mandate theory

Last night I was installed as the Public Relations Officer of the Nederlandse Debatbond (The Dutch Debating Council) at one of three annual council meetings. As this board remains neutral, I will be hesitant to introduce my personal opinion on the content of anything that's decided, but I will allow myself to make observations about the procedurals of council and keep on pointing out things that I think can improve debate*. This does remain my personal space on the internet, and this blog has been set up partially as an exercise in writing.

I moreover feel that it is fair that I share my comments on the proceedings, as these are ideas that I develop during the council regardless. Opponents of the idea that the Board should be in any way coloured can hold me to account better than they could've ever done otherwise.

Having studied political theory before going into law, the council's meeting struck me as a beautiful example of how to explain the idea of soft power versus hard power and make a case for the importance of soft power.

The council comprises of most of the Dutch debating societies, who we can consider sovereign nations in this experiment. Each 'nation' has a number of votes contingent on the amount of members that they represent; so a society with 200 members gets 20 votes, whereas a society with 50 members gets 5 votes. The make-up of this council is thus that a few large societies can outmuscle a large number of small societies, in a situation mirroring almost perfectly the pre-Lisbon Treaty European Parliament.
But of course these debating societies, being sovereign nations, have been reluctant to give up any real power to the supranational Dutch debating council. For that reason the council rather plays an advisory role, and only really has a mandate on what it can do with the money it gets from societies, and on deciding things that have to do with Nationals.

The following fantastic natural experiment occurred last night. After the representative of the largest society had to leave early, a situation arose where ten societies were present, but the largest two societies could in effect block any motion, or needed the support or abstention of one other society to support a motion. Moreover, the next policy that was being discussed was the definition of advisory. The motion proposed that the council would create a debate calendar where individual societies could reserve a month for their competition in advance, with the idea being that other societies won't organise a competition in the same month. This motion was incredibly controversial in council, with some societies stating that even if it were passed they wouldn't conform to the policy.

Naturally, this policy was brought forward because of problems existing with tournament planning in the country. In the last year alone competitions had to switch their dates as they realised they were both running on the same weekend, or just one weekend apart. Adding to the difficulty, Dutch Nationals usually means that the society who organises Nationals that year vacates its traditional spot on the calendar and moves its competition to early April. Moreover, besides the motion outlined above  two less strict motions were being discussed in council as well with significantly broader support. It was thus in everyone's interest that night that a motion passed and that societies would abide by that motion.

What happened however, was that the "month" motion passed with the two largest societies voting in favour, one society abstaining and seven societies voting against. This was a classic use of hard power; where the large societies knew that they had the power to push through a legal reading that they preferred.
However, this alienated smaller and younger societies who heavily opposed this motion and had never been told why this motion could be in their favour as well. The narrative created in council was exactly that this motion would favour the large, and disenfranchise the small. As a consequence this motion, which will likely be applied in July for the first time, is set in stone, but is only advisory and there is no clarity about how many societies are willing to actually follow the rules laid out. An overturning could even happen before July. All because there was a lack of soft power employed by the proponents of the motion. An explanation as to why this motion would benefit all was sorely lacking or not well-received.

This situation mirrors exactly the shift in international relations between the latter Bush and early Obama years. The USA here is the big society: it understands that it has hard power, such as a strong military and a veto power in the UNSC. But it also noticed that the application of its hard power under the Bush years, by waging wars in the Middle East, led to a lot of small societies opposing the USA and not complying to its vision of the world. The break between these policies happened when Barack Obama gave a much-cited speech in Cairo, calling for building bridges between the USA and Middle-Eastern countries; an application of soft power, where the USA says it wants to work together to the mutual benefit of itself and the Middle East.

An understanding of this theory of hard power and soft power may inform societies during future council meetings; as the council remains an advisory body, discussions should be had about what benefits proposals may have to the Dutch debating community as a whole, and if there is a trade-off in benefits, why that trade-off is one that the losers may agree with.

It also means that the proponents of the motion now passed can't rest on their laurels: they need to create public awareness of the existence of this motion, and spell out its benefits. Otherwise societies that weren't present at the meeting or don't believe in it at all will not use this motion, and the motion can pass into obscurity and become a dead letter of the law.
A good example is the law that banned smoking in bars in The Netherlands. This law was legally passed as an employer protection law, and not as a public health law. It was also explained as such. Therefore there was a lack of a penalty to individual smokers, as smokers wouldn't be penalised but the bar would be. Moreover, many bars in The Netherlands are owned and operated by one or two persons, many of whom would smoke themselves and see no problem with allowing smokers in their bar. As a result, this was a law that was not properly explained by the government other than in technical terms, and thus many people opposed it. This led to the law being rarely applied in small bars (only the tip jar was replaced by a jar where smokers could save money for the bar to pay its legal fees). Eventually a later cabinet amended the law and gave small bars the right to allow its customers to smoke.

As a second example, two motions failed to pass that evening as they attempted to use soft power rhetoric (coincidentally, they were introduced by the largest of the small societies) in a haphazard way. Instead of introducing the motions as being important problem solvers, they were introduced as hypotheticals that could prevent a future problem; these were a motion on installing an equity committee who would do research in potential equity-related complaints in The Netherlands and a motion which would ask the council to be in English if one of the societies had appointed a chair who can't speak Dutch.
However, given that these motions were ill-discussed beforehand, the council meeting was the first time that many societies were introduced to these hypotheticals. It became hard for them to care about these situations, having not had much time to think about the problems they may prevent. The proponent later confided in me that using stronger wordings than hypotheticals would mean that some societies would have withdrawn their support, as they didn't believe in the stronger wordings. For that reasons in both cases a majority (a very small one in the case of equity, the proponents missing just one vote) felt that the potential problem wasn't big enough and rejected these motions.

As readers of this blog will probably be able to guess, I am personally gutted that equity isn't looked at more thoroughly**, and I was happy with having an equity officer at Roosevelt. Not because any equity complaints came up, but because when one incident happened with a few participants that we received complaints about after the competition, we could point them to the equity officer as having been a solution if they had brought it up sooner. While I am in the pro-equity camp, I understand that the people who want to implement equity policies through council will need to do a more convincing job of explaining its importance, and I hope that a national discussion and an implementation of equity policies at competitions such as Roosevelt and the Leiden Open will continue.

Given the importance and application of soft power council members may have to be willing to avail themselves of more information or discuss proposals more before going into council and voting. It could mean, for instance, that motions should be made public a long time before the next council meetings, instead of only a day in advance or during the meeting itself. This would lead to better informed decisions and a better use of the council's advisory powers.

*As a side-note, the board has explicitly stated to be neutral, which means that even if the board has to implement policies that I'd disagree with I would take it on the chin. Consider me in this regard a MP who has been instructed by the party whips to adhere to the party discipline, and will thus gladly follow party line.
** As I said before, I will of course abide by council's decision and not investigate equity issues through council lines. But I feel it would be disingenuous to say that I won't support equity procedures, having blogged about this, engaged in discussions on social media and tried to take concrete steps in favour of equity-related measures. I will still, for instance, advise the society I belong to and competitions I (D)CA to take equity-related measures.

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