Switzerland v Australia: Stable government through Constitutional referendums

Our CCF last week, on the topic of the recent Greek referendum, received some great commentary and interaction on social media. One contributor suggested that we look at the way Switzerland conducts referendums. During the 1890’s the founders of our Australian Constitution looked all around the world at what they considered the best forms of Government including the Swiss along with the US and the UK. They were particularly interested in the workings of referendums under the Swiss Constitution of 1848. So, this week we are taking a closer look at Swiss democracy as a comparison to the Australian system of Government.

System of Government

Like Australia, Switzerland has three levels of government. The system features a Federal Government, as well as 26 Cantons (like our states) and thousands of Municipalities.

The Federal Council of Switzerland is the head of the Federal government and the Head of State. Executive power is not concentrated in any one person. The Swiss Federal Council consists of seven members who act as the cabinet and the collective executive.

Each of the members of the Federal Council is likely to hold the title of President or Vice-President at some stage. The President is elected by the federal assembly, holds the role for one year and it is then rotated around to one of the other seven members. According to Article 152 of the Swiss Constitution, re-election for the following year is not permitted. The role of President is largely ceremonial and the person holding the position has almost no extra power than the other members of the Council.

The Federal Council are elected by the Federal Assembly (Parliament) for four years and it is sometimes said that this form of executive is one of the most stable in the world. The whole Council is never renewed at the same time, in fact most members leave on resignation (only four members have ever been voted out). This provides for long term continuity and the members elected generally reflect the composition of all the major parties. Collegiality within the Federal Council is stipulated in Article 177 of the Swiss Constitution, meaning these parties have to work together as the Head of State.

The current Federal Council is made up of members from the following parties:

  • Two from the Free Democratic Party
  • Two for the Social Democratic Party
  • One from the Swiss People’s Party
  • One from the Christian Democratic Peoples Party
  • One from the Conservative Democratic Party

The Legislative branch of Government is called the Federal Assembly and is a bicameral Parliament with a Council of States (equivalent to our Senate) with 46 seats and the National Council (equivalent to our House of Representatives) with 200 seats. The population of Switzerland is just over eight million. As a comparison, Australia with a population of over 23 Million has 76 Senators and 150 MP’s.

The judicial branch of Government sees judges elected for six year terms by the Federal Assembly. This is also different to Australia, which sees our High Court judges appointed by the Governor-General, on the nomination of the Prime Minister and cabinet. The judges cannot be removed except for a serious breach and receive a term that only expires at the age of 70.

One of the most interesting things about Swiss democracy is the level of involvement of the citizens and the large range of referendums that can be held.

  • For the government to change the Constitution they must hold a mandatory referendum, whereby there must be a double majority for the change to pass.
  • An optional referendum can be held for any change to law, where only a simple majority is needed.
  • The citizens may challenge any law within 100 days of it passing. This popular initiative must have a petition with at least 50,000 signatures on it and only requires a simple majority of voters for the challenge to pass.
  • Citizens can also introduce amendments to the Constitution by a popular initiative. This initiative requires a petition of 100,000 signatures, the vote must be held within 18 months and needs a double majority to pass.

So like us in Australia, the Swiss need a double majority to change the Constitution (majority of states and majority of voters overall), however they also have a wider range of options of holding referendums for other purposes. These votes only require a simple majority of voters (more than 50% overall) for it to pass and the citizens themselves can trigger a referendum.

As previously mentioned the founders of the Australian Constitution looked at the Swiss model of Government when writing our Constitution and in particular their system for referendums. If you read through the Quick and Garran Commentaries on the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia 1901 you will see that many, many sections of our Constitution are compared to the Swiss Constitution.

There was a lot of thought and discussion at the Constitutional Conventions in the 1890’s to ensure that our Constitution was able to be changed to move with the times. But these changes needed to be safe-guarded. In respect to Section 128 – Alteration of the Constitution Quick and Garran state:

No amendment of the Constitution can be made without the concurrence of that double majority—a majority within a majority. These are safeguards necessary not only for the protection of the federal system, but in order to secure maturity of thought in the consideration and settlement of proposals leading to organic changes. These safeguards have been provided, not in order to prevent or indefinitely resist change in any direction, but in order to prevent change being made in haste or by stealth, to encourage public discussion and to delay change until there is strong evidence that it is desirable, irresistible, and inevitable.

What makes both countries politically stable?

Former CEFA Director and Former High Court Judge Michael Kirby, in the Monash University Law Review writes:

We share with other stable democracies, the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland and Canada, constitutional arrangements within which change, reflecting the popular will, can be readily accommodated. Stability in itself may be no boast. The laws of the Meeds and Persians were inflexibly resistant to change. But the secret of the success of the Australian Constitution has been its adaptability. Other lands, with longer histories, have seen their Constitutions changed by war and revolution. Our stable Constitution, and the strong institutions which it establishes, has provided Australia with the foundation upon which political, business, legal and social affairs can be ordered with the assurance that the fundamental features of society will not be changed by political whim or by the unstable exercise of power.

While there are some big differences in the way the political systems function, both the Swiss and Australian systems are very stable. This is because in both countries the elected officials know their limits under their respective Constitutions, are committed to the rule of law, and can respect the will of the people at any time in a political election cycle through offering a referendum.

Let us know what you think!

Photo attributed to Kuster & Wildhaber Photography

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