Mark Rutte’s old Nokia phone took center stage on Thursday during a parliamentary debate on the Dutch prime minister’s habit of deleting text messages.
Rutte acknowledged earlier in the week that he had for years deleted some of the text messages he had received before passing those he deemed important to bureaucrats for safekeeping in government archives.
Rutte’s habit was first reported by De Volkskrant newspaper, which discovered it through freedom of information requests about Rutte’s actions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between the end of 2019 and June 2020, Rutte only transmitted 41 corona-related text messages to archive.
Rutte emerged from the debate relatively unscathed, despite a no-confidence motion tabled by far-right leader Geert Wilders which will be voted on later Thursday and is unlikely to pass. However, the problem comes at an inopportune time. The prime minister is struggling with falling approval ratings, not least because of persistent reports of his lack of openness.
The Public Information and Heritage Inspectorate announced on Thursday that it would launch an investigation into the archiving process at the Ministry of General Affairs, the department headed by Rutte.
During Thursday’s debate, Rutte denied any wrongdoing and said part of the reason he deleted the posts was that until very recently he had been using an old Nokia phone without much memory, which forced him to delete messages.
Since switching to a smartphone last week, using a phone has been “hell”, said Rutte, whose attachment to his old Nokia has long bolstered his image as a sober man.
Opposition parties have criticized the prime minister’s actions, with many suggesting the ‘Nokiagate’ scandal is part of a pattern of lack of openness, transparency and trust.
Green Left leader Jesse Klaver said when the previous cabinet resigned over a benefits scandal, Rutte promised more openness and a new administrative culture. “Unfortunately, nothing came of the promise.”
“No meeting minutes, waiting as long as possible to give information, writing things and laughing about it in the meantime,” said Pieter Omtzigt, an independent member of parliament who played a central role in uncovering the scandal. . “We have a Prime Minister who undermines the foundations of democracy.”
Wilders said the prime minister is like “a kind of Bermuda political triangle, where all sorts of things inexplicably disappear”. And on the argument that Rutte was using an old Nokia phone because of his dislike of smartphones, Wilders called it “a bullshit excuse.”
But Rutte denied there was any tendency to deliberately conceal information, saying that for every incident mentioned by opposition parties there is a good explanation for why he or the government acted.
Instead, Rutte tackled the continued sense of distrust of the government by some parliamentarians. “It all starts with distrust, the basic feeling that things are rigged. This is the basic tone in parliament.
Visibly annoyed by Klaver’s comments, he added that ‘if the trust isn’t there, I’ll do something else’.