Austria: Why not let the people decide?
10 July 2012
The ESM is one, and the fiscal pact another: should the major political decisions of a country be put to the people for a vote? In Vienna, which has been debating more transparency and direct democracy for some months, the politicians have been slamming the brakes on with both feet.
He would not be Heinz Fischer if he didn’t have at least two opinions on the question of "more direct democracy?" In Pressestunde am Sonntag (“News Hour on Sunday)", yes, the President could well imagine the people getting more involved in important decisions in the future.
Just as he could well imagine being against such a thing, too. More emphasis on direct democracy, that is to say, must not lead to the elimination of the National Council. The President is also deeply concerned that in the wake of the increased use of referenda, issues might become sensationalised – “taken to the tabloids”. Complex issues such as the Fiscal Pact and the setting up of the permanent European Security Mechanism bailout fund would therefore also not be suitable matters for referenda. Explaining them to the public, you see, could just get too folksy.
Interesting, that. Almost simultaneously, Fischer’s counterpart in Germany, Joachim Gauck, has been urging Chancellor Angela Merkel to once again describe more precisely to the people the controversial measures to save the euro. It would also help the voters grasp what they’ll have to deal with. Mr. Gauck, of course, is absolutely right in that: a decision of this gravity should not be made behind the voters’ backs – at least not if one wants to keep the people from heading over in droves to the camp of those who bitterly oppose the EU.
Our neighbours in Switzerland
The Austrian people deserve such a declaration. And what exactly should be so hard about telling them in straightforward sentences that bringing in the ESM means that all the states become liable for all the debts of the other states? And what exactly could be “taking it to the tabloids" about explaining to the population that not only the debts of states will be pooled in the Community, but that money for public assistance will be used to bail out private banks – instead of letting the shareholders absorb the losses, which is what should happen.
It is precisely this “tabloidisation” of complex issues so dreaded by Heinz Fischer that might do this country some good – if only because a clear presentation of issues that are very difficult to get to the bottom of need not lead to a crude abbreviation and distortion, as was shown not least by the vote on joining the EU in June 1994.
Our neighbours in Switzerland show how far direct democracy can go and how maturely the people can make decisions. Earlier this year the Swiss voted against extending paid leave from four weeks to six. Not because they have something against more holidays, but because they take the view that the economy, already under great pressure, would be weakened further.
People need not vote on anything and everything
In 2005 an initiative to expand regional hospitals was rejected in St. Gallen by a large majority. The citizens have nothing against a greater density of hospitals, but they were told in simple terms that such a move would naturally lead to higher taxes. In Lower Austria, one doesn’t bother the obviously overburdened people sitting down to their country music and beer; the big questions are decided for them by the political "experts" in the Landtag. The result: two brand-spanking new hospitals in the countryside are to be built within twelve kilometres of each other.
Now, the people need not vote on anything and everything. Much would be achieved if voters were permitted to be there at the major crossroads. For example, regarding the ESM, or the question of whether the state should permanently spend more than it brings in, or whether government spending should be braked by constitutional law. And whether the retirement age should "grow" with increasing life expectancy or stay as it is.
Answers to this kind of question shouldn’t frighten anyone. The supposedly stupid people cannot make decisions any worse than the experts on the benches of the National Council. And that would be a quite passable starting point, would it not?