A Country in Which the Referendum has Solved the Difficulties Caused by Party Government
THE SWISS SOLUTION OF DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT
A Country in Which the Referendum has Solved the Difficulties Caused by Party Government
IT may be accepted as an axiom that a truly democratic government should first and foremost express as far as is humanly possible the will of the people of the country. An ideal democratic constitution should make it impossible for parliamentary representatives to impose on the country laws which the people do not want. Further, it should be very difficult, if not impossible, for a small majority to impose constitutional changes to which nearly one-half of the electors are opposed. Yet these obvious requirements of democratic government are conspicuously absent in most so-called democratic countries to-day, and there consequently exists a very widespread discontent with parliamentary government both in Europe and on this continent. It frequently happens on both sides of the Atlantic that the expression of the will of the people as an aim of government is altogether lost sight of, and party opportunity and party necessities become the sole motives of political ac-
The second requirement of democratic government is that the political machine should work as smoothly as possible and thus avoid as far as possible the political crises consequent upon sudden changes of government.
An article in the current number of the Edinburgh Review endeavors to show that these two fundamental requirements of democracy—the frank and sure expression of the people’s will and the smooth working and stability of government—are obtained to a far greater extent by Swiss political institutions than by those of England, or of our own.
The Swiss Confederation is made up of twenty-two sovereign States or Cantons which have united and delegated to a Central or Federal Government the right to deal with certain matters of common interest to all. Any matters not specially declared by the Constitution to be within the jurisdiction of the Federal Government remain within that of the Cantonal Governments.
The executive body is called the Federal Council and consists of seven members. Each member is at the head of one of the principal government departments; he may sit and speak in either Chamber, but may not vote. The members of the Council are separately elected by both Chambers sitting together in joint session. Each member is elected for a period of three years, hut can be re-elected, and it is the habit to re-elect members unless there is some very strong reason for not doing so. The late Mr. A. Dencher, who, at the time of his death at the age of eighty, was “doyen” of the Federal Council, had been upwards of thirty years a member of the Council and had hoen three times President of the Confederation.
Thus, unlike the British Cabinet, the Swiss Executive is not renewable all at once but only gradually as the term of office of each member (three years) comes to an end. Nor is it dependent for its existence (and this is a highly important point) on a vote of a majority in the Federal Assembly. Yet the Swiss Executive, like the British Cabinet, but unlike the American Cabinet, has the right and duty of initiating legislation; but if a measure introduced by it, or having its support, is rejected by the Assembly, that measure merely disappears for the time being. Nothing else happens. There is no political crisis and no general election.
Let us now compare the working of this system of government with our own parliamentary practice.
The parliamentary system, with its Cabinet depending on a majority vote in Parliament, must inevitably lead to one or other of two results, both equally deplorable.
Either, first, as in Canada and England, the placing of all power in the hands of a small body of men during a period of considerable duration.
Or, second, as in France, the cleavage of Parliament into various irresponsible groups without cohesion and only acting together to wreck Governments but unable to keep any Government in power for any length of time.
In the Swiss Federal Assembly, on the other hand, owing to the fact that the rejection of a Government measure entails no political crisis and no general election, there is far greater freedom of action on the part of members. They are not the slaves of any party and may speak and vote like free men.
For example, in the case of the important debate of last spring on the ratification of the St. Gothard Railway Convention, it was impossible to foresee up to within a day or two of the close of the debate how the issue w^ould be decided. The question was one which had stirred Swiss public opinion to its depths. Never in the memory of man had there been such agitation in the country on any subject. The Executive Government, or Federal Council, were solid for the ratification of the Convention, but this did not cause all the Radicals, who formed the majority of the two Chambers, to support it. On the contrary some leading members of that party hotly opposed ratification and voted against it. The debate was nevertheless by no means a personally bitter one, as must have been the ease in any Parliament where the fate of the Government depended on the vote. It was conducted throughout on a singularly high level, and the discussion was so calm and so reasonable as to extort admiration from all foreign hearers. The same can be said of all debates in the Federal Assembly. Party fury and bitterness are practically eliminated, and the nature of the measure before the House is—generally speaking—the only thing that counts.
Who has not heard it said over and over again and said with pride: “My grandfather voted blue (or red or yellow, as the ease may be), and my father
j voted blue and I’ll never vote another
Tbe very fact that such sentiments can be expressed by electors wlio are i legally assumed to be intelligent, and j whose votes can determine tbe govern1 ment of tbe country shows the importance of establishing a system under which the electors will be called upon to think of something more than tbe color of a party ticket.
This end is attained in Switzerland, first by making tbe tenure of office of tbe Executive Government independent of the fate of particular legislative proposals, and, secondly, by the institution of tbe Referendum or tbe Poll of the People. That institution is indeed tbe very touchstone of democratic government. There can be no such tiling as government of tbe people, for tbe people, by tbe peopel, without tbe Referendum. The method of demanding and applying the Federal Referendum is as follows :
‘ Tbe party or interest opposed to a law and desiring to defeat it on a Referendum must within ninety days of its passing tbe Assembly secure tbe personal signature of 30,000 electors. This, of course, implies organization and canvass, and every signature must be attested by tbe communal authorities of the place where tbe demand is signed, as a guarantee of validity. When tbe petition is sent in, it is submitted to examination by the Federal Council, which is empowered to cancel tbe votes where there is any informality in tbe declaration or the attestation. If tbe required number of valid signatures is obtained, the Federal Council organizes tbe popular voting, fixes and announces the day, informs tbe Cantonal Councils, and secures the prompt circulation of tbe law or decree to be voted on.
‘The bare text of the law is placed in the bands of every voter with no report of tbe debates or other explanatory matter.
‘The voting takes place simultaneously throughout tbe whole country and every male citizen over twenty years of age and qualified according to his Cantonal Law is entitled to vote.
‘The voting paper simply contains tbe question: “Do you accept tbe Federal Law relating to (here the Federal title of the Law) °l ‘Yes’ or ‘No. ’ ”
‘The voter has simply to write bis “Yes” or “No.” In order to save time and trouble it is usual for several votes to be taken at the same time and upon the same voting paper.
‘If a majority of tbe voters have approved of tbe law or order tbe Federal Government forthwith puts it in force, inserting it in tbe official statute book of the Confederation.
No one can say that tbe machinery above described is complicated or difficult, and if more people were familiar with tbe smooth working of tbe Swiss Referendum little would be beard of the somewhat fanciful objections which are brought against this salutary institution. No one who has studied social conditions in Switzerland will deny that it is, with some defects—for people are human
I after all—one of the most prosperous, the most contented, and the most satisfactorily governed countries in the
Mr. McCrackan in his book ‘The Rise of the Swiss Republic’ says:
“It will always remain the chief honor and glory of Swiss statesmanship to have discovered the solution of one of the greatest political problems of the age : how to enable great masses of people to govern themselves directly. By means of the Referendum and the Initiative, this difficulty has been brilliantly overcome. The essence and vital principle of the Popular Assembly has been preserved from perishing miserably before the exigencies of modern life and successfully grafted upon the representative system.”
In addition to the objection in principle to direct democracy of any kind— an objection which, if the Swiss example has any weight, is of no real substance —there is the sentimental and to some persons very strong objection that the Referendum will diminish the importance of the House of Commons, or put an end to the Representative system.
It is true that the Referendum will put an end to the Representative system as we know it—a system based on the struggles of two parties for the prizes of office. It will, however, enable the country to enjoy a true representative system under which the feelings and wants of the people are really expressed and represented.
Another argument on which much stress is laid by the opponents of the popular vote is that the Referendum would so detract from the importance of Parliament as to make membership of Parliament no longer attractive to firstclass men. It cannot be too emphatically stated that this is not the case in Switzerland. Indeed although the prizes to be gained in public life are meagre compared with those in other countries it would be difficult to find in any country a body of men more sincerely patriotic, more single-minded and more clear-headed and business-like than the members of the Federal Assembly, while they are at the same time in their conduct of affairs as dignified as the most aristocratic Assembly in Europe. It would require something akin to a miracle to produce a scene in either of the Swiss Chambers, such as we frequently read of as taking place even in the Mother of Parliaments.
One objection to the Referendum of which much has been made is the expense it would entail. But a recent Referendum in Switzerland cost the Federal Government only $980. This represented simply the cost of printing the necessary documents. All other services are carried out by permanent officials of either the Federal or Cantonal Governements.
There is yet another objection that is constantly made to adopting Swiss institutions, namely that Switzerland is so small that what suits her would probably not be practicable in a larger country. If this objection is intended to refer to the actual operation of voting
by Referendum one can only say that it is not more difficult to carry out such a vote than that of an ordinary Parliamentary election-—perhaps a good deal less difficult because there would be as a rule less party excitement. To argue otherwise would be to fall into the error of the ancient Greeks who believed that no commonwealth could maintain its liberty whose electors were so many in number that they could not all hear one speaker at one time.
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