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Politics is about compromise: a guide to the SBS drama Borgen

Anyone in Australia who has struggled with the political repercussions of a federal minority government should spare a thought for the Danes: they operate in a parliamentary system where minority government…

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the real world current Prime Minister of Denmark, has said that TV drama Borgen has been good for Danish politics. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

Anyone in Australia who has struggled with the political repercussions of a federal minority government should spare a thought for the Danes: they operate in a parliamentary system where minority government and multi-party coalitions are the norm.

The Danish political drama, Borgen, which debuts at 9:35pm on SBS1 tonight, follows the career and personal life of Birgitte Nyborg, leader of the (fictious) centrist Moderate Party.

The critically acclaimed show explores the inner workings of the statsminister’s (equivalent to the prime minister) office.

Viewers are provided with insight into Nyborg’s negotiations with multiple parties as she tries to form Denmark’s first female-led government, following her party’s better than expected election result.

Over the course of the first two seasons we see Nyborg evolve from an earnest, somewhat peripheral MP, to a strong leader forced to make sacrifices in terms of her family, friends, and even ideals, in order to ensure the continuation of her government and the delivery of key policies.

Spin doctor Kasper Juul also plays a central role. He gets the government’s message out, ensures that Nyborg looks good, and interacts with the press, including his former girlfriend Katrine Fønsmark (a TV political journalist) who conducts Leigh Sales-style interviews with politicians.

Another interesting character is Neils Erik Lund, Nyborg’s permanent secretary, who, as a state bureaucrat, has to tread carefully to remain impartial on party political matters. As the series progresses so does Lund’s behaviour towards Nyborg, other members of Cabinet, and Juul.

While Borgen has it fair share of sex, scandal and intrigue (although nowhere near the level seen in US TV), what makes it fascinating is the insight it provides into the Danish political process, including the role of the press.

By exploring the importance of getting the right message out, the difference positive press can make to a politician, and issues of privacy, especially regarding politicians’ family members, Borgen provides a somewhat unique view of everyday political processes.

Consensus style parliamentary systems

Viewers will notice a number of differences between the Danish and Australian political systems.

Political scientists divide parliamentary systems into two basic types: majoritarian, where it is normal for a single party - or two-party coalition - to win government in their own right; and consensus systems, which among other differences employ proportional representation (PR) to elect their MPs. This generally results in governments being formed by multi-party coalitions.

Borgen is the nickname of Christiansborg Palace, the home of Danish parliament. tsaiproject

PR is commonly used in pluralist societies, where it is necessary to provide representation to minority groups. It is very popular in Western Europe.

Australians use a form of PR called the Single Transferable Vote, to elect the federal Senate (and most state upper houses). STV is the ability we have to vote “below the line”, where voters can choose not to vote for a party, but to preference all of the candidates seeking election. If you vote “above the line”, it is an example of Closed List PR.

Denmark uses an Open List form of PR, where voters can either vote for a party, or preference a candidate.

One of the repercussions of PR is that for the system to work, multi-member districts are required. This means that countries employing PR in their lower house don’t have local members in the same way we do.

Consensus systems are also quite different in their set up. They generally employ a hemicycle seating arrangement, rather than the confrontational government and opposition benches we see in the British Parliament at Westminster. The Australian House of Representatives is a hybrid, where the government and opposition sit opposite each other, but the seats curve around the back of the chamber, and crossbenchers sit near the middle of the curve.

There are currently 12 parties holding seats in the Danish parliament, and the minority government consists of a coalition of three parties, led by the Social Democrats.

Negotiating among multiple parties to form government can be difficult. An extreme example was recently seen in Belgium, which was without a government for over 500 days in 2010-11.

Things to look out for

One thing you’ll notice in Borgen is how little time the show spends in the parliamentary chamber. Australia is quite unusual with its almost daily question time during parliamentary sessions. Like the UK, Denmark holds question time only once a week, on a Wednesday.

Denmark has a unicameral (single house) parliament, the Folketinget, with 179 seats. 90 seats are required to form a majority government.

Generally minority governments rule, unless MPs form a majority against it. This is similar to a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives, where if enough of the crossbenchers withdrew their support of the Gillard government, the government would fail.

Because of its multi-party coalition government, in order to develop and pass legislation, a consensus must be gained among the ruling parties. Government MPs face a balancing act where they have to stay true to the ideals of their party, particularly if they went to the electorate with a particular platform, and yet ensure essential legislation (such as the budget) is passed. This pressure is particularly intense for members of cabinet.

Failure to successfully pass legislation can lead to a coalition collapsing, and either a new government being formed with a different set of parties, or elections being necessary. This is the reason why Italy had so many governments between 1945 and the 1990s. While the Christian Democracy party led almost all of the governments throughout 1944-1992, their coalition partners were on a revolving door.

Within Denmark, this pressure makes the PM’s opening speech a major test for any government. The speech, given during the first sitting of the sessional year, outlines the current state of Denmark and the government’s planned measures. A general debate, which can last for a number of days, takes place on the basis of this outline. Failure to gain the support of a majority of MPs for the plan can lead to the downfall of the government.

Birgitte Nyborg, played by actor Sidse Babett Knudsen, delivers her opening speech to Danish parliament in the show. Borgen/Denmark Broadcasting Corporation

To help guarantee the longevity of proposed reforms, the government may try to form an informal “grand coalition” involving both government and non-government parties agreeing to support key legislation. Nyborg’s attempt to operate outside traditional bloc-voting lines in the second season is one of the highlights of Borgen.

The Danish parliament uses an electronic form of voting. Votes can either be a basic count, or an actual roll-call vote where the response of individual members is recorded publicly.

Ministers can be appointed to the cabinet from outside the legislature as a result of their expertise in a particular field. Non-elected ministers are not entitled to vote during parliamentary sessions.

Voting in elections is not compulsory in Denmark, but there is a high level of voter turnout, at around 85%.

Finally, the show provides an interesting insight into Denmark’s workplace relations legislation. It appears that being prime minister doesn’t guarantee you the right to a competent assistant or the ability to demand a new one!

Must watch TV

Despite all of the differences between our two political systems, one of the best features of Borgen is its selection of timely policy issues that resonate equally well in Australia.

The attempt of Nyborg to hold true to her beliefs and yet run an effective government makes Borgen compelling viewing.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    Non-confrontational, multi-party consensus, with QT once a week and they get 85% turnout? Fools! The media in Denmark must be as weak as dish-water.
    John Howard should be sent as ambassador to Copenhagen so he can show them how a true democracy works.

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    1. Trevor Kerr

      ISTP

      In reply to Tim Kottek

      Some other features of Denmark that mark it out as a model for civil society.
      1) Everyone is assigned a Personal Identification Number by the Civil Registration System. The linkage facilitated by this system permits large-scale health research. Watch out for more studies looking at side-effects from anti-cholesterol medications. http://news.ku.dk/all_news/2013/2013.1/cholesterol-medicine-affects-energy-production-in-muscles/ showed simvastatin causes changes in skeletal muscle and is diabetogenic.
      2) A pretty good pork industry.
      3) Firearms control. http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/denmark

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    2. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Trevor Kerr

      Yeah you can't really do anything at all without that CPR number. My eldest was born in Copenhagen; she had a CPR number before she'd even left the delivery room.

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  2. Patrick Stokes

    Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

    I lived in Copenhagen for two years, and one thing I was continually struck by was how civil and constructive Danish politics is compared to ours. Admittedly that's continuous with the consensus-driven character of Danish culture, which is one reason why they've been able to maintain such a resoundingly successful social democratic system. (The down-side of that emphasis on consensus is that there's a 'right way' and a 'wrong way' to do things, and Danes will generally be only to happy to point out when you're doing something the 'wrong' way). But it also speaks to a certain maturity in the way their politics is conducted. Then we moved to the UK, in which politics, though noticeably more adversarial, was still strikingly more measured and thoughtful than in Australia. Then it was back here, to vacuous sloganeering and politics as war pursued by other means. It's like a dog-fight in a Kabuki theatre.

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    1. Miles Ruhl

      Thinker

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Great analogy Patrick, very accurate. Our political system could learn alot from the Scandanavian countries among others.

      Crikey, Zimbabwe could probably teach our people a thing or two on constructiveness and civility in politics.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Spot on, Patrick - I'm sick to death of the hysteria ('worst government in the whole of human history' 'public debt that will force our children to sell their children for pet meat' - that kind of thing!) when what we have is a less-than-perfect, not-particularly-politically-skillful but broadly reasonably competent and effective government, managing a complex parliament (the one WE elected!) reasonably effectively and producing some decent legislation - quite a bit of it all the better for a bit…

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    3. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Very well-said, Felix. In my darker moments (every fifteen minutes or so, give or take) I find myself thinking that somewhere along the line we've morphed into a nation of selfish brats. One thing I liked about Denmark was that while the taxes were truly eye-watering (40-50% income tax and 25% GST), the Danes simply accepted this as the price of looking after everyone properly. They're fond of quoting N.F.S. Gruntvig's description of Danish society: "Few have too much, and fewer have too little" - that second clause being the more important one. In Australia the very idea that we're supposed to be looking after anyone but ourselves seems to have been cauterized out of the political discourse altogether.

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Thanks for the Gruntvig quote - a nice little guiding principle if ever I saw one!

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  3. Alexander Rosser

    Philosopher

    All very interesting. However, living as I do in a blue ribbon seat, my vote is worthless. I pay taxes but have negligable impact on government and opposition policies and style. Thats why I vote informal, as a protest. I do indeed cast a carefully considered vote for the upper house, but that's not where the action is.

    Felix, you are not the only one sick of the hysteria. We are becoming more like the USA every day.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Alexander Rosser

      Alexander, I can't bring myself to vote informal, but I have a fair bit of sympathy with your stance.

      By the way, I quite often do scrutineering at elections and everyone present treasures the particularly good informal tickets: the ones with some witty version of 'Why don't youse all go and get f@#ked!' scrawled on them in large, friendly letters. Even the Electoral Commission guys get a good chuckle.

      It might be worth considering that the scrutineers are active members of their respective political parties and do tend to notice these kinds of protests - might be a good opportunity to plant an idea...

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    2. Alexander Rosser

      Philosopher

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      I do, I do. I always write "Blue ribbon seat - wasted vote" or some such.

      Nice to know that it is seen.

      Cheers

      Alex

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    3. Tim Kottek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Finally decided not to vote informal in the reps - public funding for my minority party of choice is worth having to choose between tweedle dumb and tweedle dumber one will be elected. Now the Senate that's much more fun voting below the line!

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Tim Kottek

      Yeah - even if it only moves the vote from 10.001% to 10.002% I still prefer to register than number myself.

      And it's great to see someone who knows that you should always enjoy the fun of voting below the line in the Senate! A depressingly large number of people seem to believe that, if you give a party your number 1 vote, they can then kidnap your remaining preferences, even if you did vote below the line. Frankly, voting above the line is only for lazy bastards - I ALWAYS vote below the line (if only for the delicious pleasure of debating internally whether i'll give my LAST vote to Family First or the Shooters!)

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    5. Tim Kottek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Interesting how our choice for 5x & 5x + 1 appear to be the same candidates. How did Victorian Labour shoot itself in the foot prefering a right wing religious party to the greens. No accounting for taste. Roll on multi member lower house elctorates

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    6. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Tim Kottek

      Frankly, Tim, I think the Labor stuff-up in Victoria was part of the foolish, short-term, poll-driven thinking that is badly damaging the party: so determined to maintain the bigot vote that they will do anything to marginalise and appear to distance themselves from the Greens.

      We have multi-member electorates here in th eACT and it generally works perfectly well - often requires a bit of the kind of compromise discussed in this article but no evidence that it produces political chaos or crippled, leaderless governments...

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    7. Tim Kottek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Multi member electorates - now that's worth pushing for but how? Neither of tweedle bumb & tweedle dumber want that. Thanks for your response appreciated.

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    8. Natalie Mast

      Associate Director, Research Data & Strategy at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Tim Kottek

      I think we’re unlikely to change from our Alternative Vote (AV) system in the lower house. We have a strong, well functioning democracy and utilise PR in the upper house.

      Electoral reform is really difficult, especially if the voting public don’t perceive a problem with the status quo.

      I also think people like the idea of having a local member, someone they know that in theory they can call on when they encounter a difficulty, or even a single person, closer to you than the party leader…

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    9. Tim Kottek

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Natalie Mast

      Thank you for a thoughtful and comprehensive response to an almost off the cuff posting. Thanks again.

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  4. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Speaking of the tv show - watched it last night.

    A brilliant piece of tv drama - great characters, great storyline, great acting.

    The Danes make some of the best tv programs in the world.

    Unit One was possibly the best tv crime series ever made.

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    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen if you haven't yet done so, catch up on the DVDs of the earlier series The Eagle - not the same producers, but every bit as good!

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Thanks.....a couple of danish series I missed cos I came at them too late....The eagle was one.

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    3. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      'Unit One' was great ('Rejseholdet' - lit. 'traveling team', so maybe 'Flying Squad' would have been a better translation). There's an amazing episode with the insanely talented Nicholas Bro playing a mentally disabled man who becomes a suspect in an arson case.

      But yeah 'The Eagle' was just outstanding. We saw Jens Albinus and Marina Bouras (they're married in real life) sitting by the eastern end of the lakes in Copenhagen one evening - it's a small town in many ways.

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  5. John C Smith

    Auditor

    In a multi party democracy the rulers are selected by money and/or voters and the country run by bureucrats.

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    1. mark delmege

      self employed

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Good point Felix. Nothing is as corrupt as the two party system where business owns both parties. I bet in Denmark (which is not without problems) has more papers and news outlets than here. We have the ABC and News and a couple of others who are just propaganda outlets. The ABC is abysmal in its foreign reporting – did I say abysmal – criminal would be better. But you need good media in a democracy and we don't have that. Multi party and proportional voting surely is the only thing that gets close…

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