Noses can backfire

In Danish politics there is a peculiarity called ‘næse’ (‘nose’). It is the parliamentarian way of expressing discontent with a fellow politician – normally a cabinet minister – without resorting to legal remedies such as pursuing them through the normal courts or Rigsretten, the special court for ministers.  Charging an MP with a crime is not so easy. They enjoy immunity unless their peers lift the immunity protection.  

It has happened a few times – the latest was when the minister of justice, Ninn Hansen, got a slap on the wrist for illegally instructing civil servants to not grant Tamils access to legally-entitled family integration/immigration.

Short of a legal offence, a majority ruling can express mistrust in a minister for poor administration or for misleading Parliament willingly or by accident. The minister must then resign – possibly followed by the whole government.

The last remedy
Which brings us to the næse, which in old Danish means shame or dishonour. Parliament can decide to form a majority ruling to express its discontent short of distrust.  So if the opposition cannot rustle up a majority to turn the government over, they can at least hand out a næse as the last remedy.

The former foreign minister, Uffe Ellemann Jensen, got a record 80 næser, not because like Pinocchio he was lying, but because he delivered the opposition’s instructions  to vote against NATO’s decision regarding the implementation of missiles in Europe during the Cold War with a glimmer in his eye. The opposition could not conjure up a majority regarding a decision of mistrust that would have brought the government down, but the næser were issued. They got so inflated that we did not expect them to be used anytime soon.

Practice can backfire
On Wednesday February 4, the government parties Socialdemokraterne and Radikale got together to issue a næse to the former tax minister, Venstre’s Troels Lund Poulsen from the former government, for being responsible for the leaks of classified information about Helle Thorning Schmit’s tax matter, although a commission has recently concluded that they could not find, or prove, any misadministration.

However, it is unlikely to jeopardise Poulsen’s chances of becoming member of a possible blue government after the upcoming general election, which observers now expect to take place before the summer.

Politician should learn not to use næser for the purpose of merely shaming and dishonouring when the population is not likewise concerned – or they will learn that næser can backfire.