switzerland referendum immigration australia

The 9 February Swiss vote on capping immigration from the EU countries, passed by a wafer thin majority, is still reverberating throughout Europe. No wonder, as immigration, together with the income gap, counts among the most divisive political agenda items anywhere, not just in Switzerland.

The Lowy Institute's Khalid Koser has enumerated five valuable lessons for Australia. There are more, and not only for Australia.

A full week after the vote, the world's media still wonders whether a majority of Swiss have tilted towards the far right or at least paved its way by basking in false nostalgia. The answer is 'no' and 'yes'.

'No', as the party pushing the referendum (the Swiss People's Party, representing everything from the sinister nationalist right to the rural hinterland and speaking for the clear losers on Switzerland's internationalised marketplace) has never gone over 30% of the popular vote in any other electoral contest. 'Yes', as the winners were successful in taking along the crucial part of the electorate not following party lines who normally provide majorities for sensible outcomes in referendum votes.

Not this time. And now the Swiss, jolted by some quite hostile reactions from neighbouring countries, are waking up to the fact that they have gone too far.

EU Commission President Barroso, himself a former exchange student in Switzerland, explained the sudden withdrawal of his negotiators for the future full immersion of Swiss students in Europe with the laconic comment that this vote struck at the heart of what Europe is all about: the freedom of every EU citizen to study and work wherever he or she chooses.

General lesson number one: You can provoke Europe only so much if you are part of it or want to profit from the world's largest open market. Exemptions from the EU pillars — free movement of goods and services, of finance, and of persons – are not negotiable. 

It is of course true that globalisation has intruded into the lives of many citizens, and has disoriented quite a few. But in reality this vote was not about such larger issues. It was an old-style power grab by a few old white men, shamelessly exploiting base instincts normally left alone in Western democracies by responsible politicians. What made them so effective was a glaring hole in Swiss legislation which knows no rules regarding the financing of political parties and campaigns.

We have in Switzerland our own little Rupert Murdoch who is on a campaign to buy up, with his money and that of some billionaire buddies, hitherto serious but financially troubled media and then turn them into flag bearers of his very conservative views.

They have done it in Basel and they are trying hard to do it in Geneva, too. Unlike Murdoch, our man, who goes by the name of Blocher, not only finances politics but wants in, or rather back in. He is one of the few ever to actually have been voted out of the government (under its very special political system, Switzerland's governing Federal Council of seven politicians from a broad party coalition is elected by a full session of the Swiss Congress), and he's been on a vengeance binge ever since.

So larger lesson number two would be that money talks in politics. Nothing new about that in Western democracies; just think of the Koch brothers or Berlusconi. The point here is that this also happens in the 'pristine' direct-democracy system of Switzerland, where supposedly every voter, conscious of his civic responsibility, carefully ponders the aye and nay side of things and then casts a vote strictly along the lines of rational merit.

There is much talk, and not only in Europe, that political systems have to become more democratic. Proponents wave the magical referendum wand as the best means to this end. The two major functioning models of such supposedly arch democratic polities, Switzerland and the State of California, unfortunately don't bare out such optimism. It is at best a way of avoiding extremes and getting popular support for political decisions and at worst a way of running political decision-making into the sand.

Larger lesson number three: of all necessarily imperfect ways to run a country, representative democracy is normally the least bad solution. At a minimum, Swiss direct democracy is not really an export product. Advice to be heeded in Australia when pondering the next referendum (incidentally, Section 128 was put in there on advice from Swiss immigrants, among the fathers of the Australian constitution).

A tried and trusted principle in Swiss politics has it that although the people, in voting, are always right, they do occasionally change their minds. Already there is talk that the government, which urged a 'no' vote, might put the executing legislation for the new constitutional amendment up for another vote. A new amendment would then not contradict but circumvent the first one, provided, of course, that a majority vote 'the right way' or vote at all.

Last weekend’s participation, despite the high stakes, was 56%, technically reducing the 'Ayes' for immigration caps to 29%.  Here is something the Swiss should learn from the Australians: make voting compulsory if you want a real majority.

Photo by Flickr user twicepix.