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Complaining Council for Culture backfires on Halbe Zijlstra

State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra does not like whining. Don't come to him with email bombardments, Twitter campaigns, angry letters and abusive language. He is not only insensitive to it, it even backfires on him. At least that is what he told people who objected via twitter to his proclaimed VVD position on healthcare. In doing so, the change manager with ministerial ambitions threatened to hit people who complained harder than those who kept their mouths clean.

At the time, Halbe Zijlstra was probably already in talks with Mark Rutte about a post in his new cabinet. And Mark Rutte needed people like Halbe. After all: a cabinet that has to make cuts needs people with thick skin. Men and women who can tell the heavy story with some feeling here and there (as in health care and defence), but who above all do not fight each other in the weekly cabinet meetings. That is where unity is needed, especially with Geert Wilders breathing down our necks.

Culture was a case apart for Rutte: he needed a boulder for that. After all, in political The Hague, the arts sector is notorious. Many politicians sit on the boards of theatres, museums or music companies, and every time, thanks to that lobby, those damned artists manage to keep the subsidy system afloat. At least, that is how it sounds in the political generation that Rutte belongs to. The battle over cultural subsidies is therefore much more a fundamental internal power struggle within the VVD than the outside world comes to know. The Bolkesteins (OUD), Nicolaïs (DSM) and Dijkstals (RIP) of this world have and had power and that power must now be broken once and for all.

After all: popular voter PVV takes pleasure in punishing precisely the Dutch cultural sector for the "lax multicultural tolerance" of the post-war years. So the demand of the proxy partner is: abolish or at least halve it and don't listen to the cries of those affected. Enter Halbe Zijlstra, the man who almost roared with laughter as he defended his mission on Pauw and Witteman, and who still can't contain his laughter when another artist squeals, votes or shouts. He grows from it.

Halbe also prides himself on knowing even less about culture than his electorate. He is only concerned with doing his job. The tougher, the better. That he thus meets the ideal profile for a non-commissioned officer, but will never get to the top, will only dawn on this ambitious Frisian after the next elections.

It was up to Els Swaab, chairman of the Council for Culture, to change this man's mind. While Zijlstra was still hiccuping with laughter in his chair because of the visit of the Table of Six (a self-appointed club of representatives of the cultural sector that came to him begging for his life), there, on Friday 29 April, was the loudly gnashing of teeth in the Council for Culture's advice, which he had requested in December. With undisguised fury, the Council shows him all corners of the room, in a way that would make an ordinary politician shudder: in almost every chapter there is a rebuke about the State Secretary's lack of historical or current knowledge, but the members of the Council seem to have given up in advance. For they know that Zijlstra is no ordinary politician.

In the advice, the council shows what the almost 1/3 cut in the budget of the subsidised arts sector will mean, and very meekly the council then asks the state secretary to ease the suffering by giving the patient a two-year reprieve.

The suffering caused by the current plans is not diminished, by the way. The Council knows that, Halbe knows that. For him, the consideration will be purely financial: what will an accelerated intervention cost extra in welfare payments, legal proceedings and debt restructuring? If it turns out that a year's delay will yield something extra, there will be a year's delay. But therefore not out of kindness.

The Council for Culture delivers a true certificate of incompetence by once again begging in its advice to repeal the VAT increase on the arts. After all: that half-year reprieve that the sector was given was already a far-reaching knee-jerk reaction by the cabinet to the cultural sector, they are really not going to reverse that again. Indeed, Rutte has already announced that the entire reduced VAT rate will be abolished anyway. It only takes a little spin doctor in training to blame this on the artists' moaning in front of the public eye. Those who act like victims will be treated like victims, is the big lesson to be learnt from the Americanised liberalism of the Rutte Cabinet.

How nice it would not be, but how impossible for the time being, if the arts sector could start explaining in unison to Halbe Zijlstra what he can start putting that whole subsidy system of his into.

But so we will be there in three years.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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