BOOK REVIEW: DIRECT DEMOCRACY IN SWITZERLAND, by Gregory A. Fossedal
News Weekly, September 18, 2010
Where the people rule
DIRECT DEMOCRACY IN SWITZERLAND by Gregory A. Fossedal
(New Jersey: Transaction Publishers) Paperback: 304 pages ISBN: 9781412805056 Rec. price: AUD$59.90 (subject to availability)
Reviewed by Joseph Poprzeczny
Try to imagine a country where the outcome of every election is a hung parliament. Try imagining one where the people, not the politicians, bring on referendums to amend the constitution and can overturn bills passed by parliament.
Try imagining a country where the Cabinet consists of only seven members, and is chosen by a hung parliament, and where the head-of-state is one of those seven, each of whom serves in that position for just one year on a rotating basis.
Try imagining a country where the high court has 54 judges, each serving for only six years, though terms can be extended by parliament.
And try also imagining how, when foreigners living in that country seek citizenship, it can be approved only by ballots cast by local residents at town-hall meetings.
If that's all too difficult, envisage a country where all adult males must serve in the defence reserve, a requirement that has been endorsed by national referendum.
To Australians, such an unfamiliar scenario might prompt a response that such a country could feature only in a fairy-tale or perhaps Disneyworld's Tomorrow Land.
Not so. It exists, and is among the world's most prosperous and politically stable.
The country is Switzerland, and it lies at the heart of long-time warring Europe, bordering France, Germany, Italy, Austria and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein.
Switzerland is the world's only true democracy because no legislation can be enacted by its parliaments without voters having the opportunity to call a referendum to decide whether it becomes law.
Countries such as Australia, which we're told is a democracy, are more accurately described as ballotocracies, meaning that voters elect politicians who, after each election or ballot, thereupon exercise monopoly power over the entire legislative process.
Voters in mere ballotocracies are constitutionally excluded from a say on what will or won't become law, meaning that once a bill is enacted, all must thereafter obey it.
The word democracy derives from Greek roots: demos (people) and kratos (power). And Switzerland applies the word consistently by putting people above politicians.
The Swiss wisely never bequeathed their politicians total power. All bills passed by their parliaments must be put "on ice" for 100 days to give citizens an opportunity, should they wish, to organise, sign and table petitions to bring on a binding referendum.
Among other things, such citizen-initiated referendums force politicians to consult widely on proposed legislation since they dislike their bills being challenged at referendums.
Switzerland's unique citizen power formula - called the facultative referendum - comes into play whenever 50,000 electors, or eight of its 26 cantons (i.e., member states 0f the federal state of Switzerland), petition for a referendum within 100 days of a bill passing parliament. The referendum, not parliament, decides the bill's fate.
However, if no referendum is held, or voters ratify parliament's version, it becomes law.
Gregory Fossedal's Direct Democracy in Switzerland not only outlines how the Swiss developed their unique democratic governance arrangements, but describes how it operates at three levels - nationally, in its 26 cantons and across 2,596 communities or communes (shires).
The three tiers are all wholly democratic since voters, not elected politicians, have the final say on what becomes law.
Because of Switzerland's unique direct democratic arrangements, the country's politicians are the citizens' servants, not their masters, as in Australia.
Though very few Australians realise it, one-time South Australian premier and ardent democrat, Charles Cameron Kingston (1850-1908), in his 1890 draft constitution that he presented to Australia's first colonial federation convention, moved for the inclusion of a clause which would have made the envisaged Commonwealth of Australia another Switzerland.
But a majority of colonial politicians present deleted Kingston's democratic clause and it never re-surfaced at later conventions.
Fewer still realise that several of the colonial forerunners of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which came into being in 1900, included in their platforms pledges to transform their states into Swiss-style democracies.
Moreover, a version of the policy lingered on in the constitution of the ALP, from 1900 to 1963, although Labor powerbrokers ensured that the idea never got onto the statute books.
In a foreword to American author Gregory Fossedal's study, NASDAQ Stock Market president Alfred R. Berkeley concisely summarises and highlights the stark difference between ballotocracies, such as Australia, and genuine democracies such as Switzerland.
He says: "In most Western democracies, the people make only a small number of decisions about economic or social policies themselves. Instead we hire experts and elect representatives to make many of these decisions for us.
"Every now and then - every two, four or six years - we hold another election to review the last 10,000 or so decisions by those leaders, and vote for one or two alternatives who will handle the next cluster of thousands of decisions."
That's Australia down to a 't'.
What of the Swiss? Berkeley writes: "Switzerland uses some of these devices."
By this he means that the Swiss also have competitive political parties, elections, cabinet government and often hung parliaments.
But they have more than this - much more. They don't allow their parties, cabinets and parliament, to lock out the people from making laws.
In the final analysis, because of Swiss peoples' power to call referendums over legislation, it is they, not politicians, who are the bosses of their land.
Berkeley says: "[T]o a much greater extent than other democracies the voters make dozens, and even hundreds, of particular decisions themselves."
Through referendums called by the people themselves - not by their parliaments (i.e., politicians) - the Swiss have the power to reject bills or initiate their own laws.
Berkeley makes another important observation. He says: "The Swiss have a highly devolved system of federalism in which many decisions that would be made by the federal or 'state' governments in other countries are made by cantons (some with fewer than 100,000 in populations) or communities (of which the average is about 3,000 persons).
Here it is worth noting that Switzerland, where Protestants form about half the population, crafted grassroots self-governance close to the people long before Pope Leo XIII adopted the principle of subsidiarity in his greatest encyclical, RerumNovarum (1891).
Subsidiarity, which promotes devolved governance, was subsequently reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI in his famous encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), with important input from the 20th-century German Catholic theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning.
Subsidiarity was the polar opposite of the centralising, totalitarian rule practised in Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Third Reich.
The Swiss, with their unique constitutional arrangements, embody the principle of subsidiarity and thereby deprive political parties, politicians and bureaucrats of the power to lord it over people.
The lynchpin of Switzerland's system of governance, Fossedal stresses, is the power of citizens to block legislation within 100 days of its passage through parliament and to be able to initiate nationwide referendums for democratic adjudication.
Berkeley, in his foreword to Fossedal's book, says: "Where the Swiss do employ professional politicians, both their pay and their power pale against the clout and compensation of a typical state legislator, or even city council member, in much of the US."
"The [Swiss] federal parliament meets about 12 weeks a year, its members earn perhaps $40,000 in compensation, and they have virtually no full-time staff - not even offices. The Swiss president is chairman of a seven-member committee that alternates once a year.
"The supreme court is comprised of some four dozen judges, many of them without a law degree, who have no authority to discard federal laws, even if they deem them unconstitutional."
The Swiss judicial system does not give lawyers, meaning judges, to tell the people what the law shall be. Instead, the law of the land becomes what has been voted for, not judges' edicts.
Switzerland is a democracy, pure and simple. The people have the final say on legislation since they've not allowed politicians to usurp their power.
This means that Swiss voters decide at referendums whether or not their country enters international treaties.
Australians are denied this sort of choice. As a result, we suffer from a proliferation of extra laws, because Canberra has signed United Nations and other conventions and treaties devised in the main by overseas diplomatic staff and well-paid bureaucrats housed in distant Manhattan or Geneva.
Fossedal describes the origins of Swiss democracy; its emergence in isolated mountain villages where annual town meetings became the custom; and how this longstanding practice was formalised and extended to cantonal and later national governance.
Fossedal doesn't hide his admiration for Swiss democracy. He highly recommends the system for other countries, including the United States, where Washington DC has, since at least F.D. Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, increasingly encroached upon states' affairs.
However, Fossedal offers some constructive criticism of the Swiss and acknowledges the occasional flaws of its banking sector.
That having been said, Switzerland, with its citizens as pivotal players, has shown a rare capacity to take decisive action in areas where elected politicians in other countries have often fumbled.
For instance, Fossedal points out that Switzerland was unique in its prompt response to the threat of Nazism in the early 1930s. He writes: "[It] took the Swiss only a few months after the rise to power of Adolf Hitler to gear-up a major rearmament effort.
"By 1935, a major anti-German cultural and ideological resistance was underway at a time when most of the West was still appeasing the German dictator."
Little wonder that Switzerland was the only neighbour Hitler never attacked.