Doctor and activist

Swiss Democracy. 9/9/18

I visited Switzerland to see the Swiss Parliament and to try to get a feel for how their direct Democracy works. Their basic system is more like Australia’s than might be imagined.  They have two houses of Parliament. The lower one has members elected by a first post the post from individual electorates, and the upper house is the States (Cantons) house with 2 members per Canton, but Cantons varying quite widely in population.   There are a number of political parties and these form coalitions to achieve majorities.

There are three elements of government, the Federal Council, which is the equivalent of the Australian cabinet, which is elected by the lower house of Parliament. There are the two houses of Parliament and there is the judiciary, who are elected by the Parliament. There are Parliaments at a Canton level and at a local level.

Members of Parliament are limited to 2 terms and are all part-time. The Parliament therefore does not sit all the time so that MPs can keep in touch with their communities and their jobs.  Their jobs are preserved s that when the leave parliament they can return to their formed employment and have no need of parliamentary pensions. A stint in Parliament is thus seen as social contribution rather than a career.

Citizens can initiate referenda provided that they get over 100,00 signatures, which is now considered far too few in the internet and social media age, but would be very difficult to change.  Fewer signatures are needed to initiate referenda at Canton or local levels.  If a referendum question is suggested the Parliament may debate the issue so that it is widely canvassed, researched and argued and then makes recommendations as to whether it is to be supported or not. They may even suggest alternative wordings, and these will be voted on at the same time. 

Citizens can initiate referenda to change the constitution, but not make laws. They can initiate referenda to invalidate laws, but the Parliament actually makes the laws. Because the laws can be invalidates by referenda the Parliament goes to a lot of trouble to explain laws and get widespread support for the laws that it passes.

The system is not a panacea and has some problems.  Because the constitution can be changed but not the laws, populist sentiment can at times make for embarrassing scenarios.  A referendum passed putting a ban on minarets in the constitution, which was seen as a populist anti-Muslim measure.   The number of referenda is also rising, and there is concern that if there are too many, people may lose interest in the questions.  As it is, Parliament prepares lengthy briefs on the case for and against, and these may or may not be read. The proponents of a referendum question are able to write their case in the information provided with the referendum question, and the is usually discussion in proportion to the seriousness of the issue. 

There are 4 official languages in Switzerland, which si very conscious of its diversity and determined to keep harmony. The languages are German, French, Italian and Romeish, a distinctively Swiss dialect spoken by only a few percent of the population.  All parliamentary discussions are simultaneously translated into all 4 languages.

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

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