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Introducing the system of
Initiative, Referendum and Recall

Governments are like fire: good servants but destructive masters. A Democratic Society is one in which the will of the people prevails. Growing frustration with Australian party politics is the result of a feeling that the will of the electors is not being reflected in the Parliaments of the nation. This has resulted in an unhealthy and dangerous cynicism concerning parliamentary institutions.At one time Australians led the world in political reforms. Australians can, to echo the words of a famous British Prime Minister, save themselves by their own exertions and the rest of the world by their example. They are challenged to regenerate the institutions their forefathers bequeathed to them, or to perish as a free nation.The Swiss constitutional system of the Initiative Referendum and Recall, widely discussed in the early years of the Australian Federation, provides an inspiring example of what can, and must be done.
The following questions and answers are offered to those who wish to understand the principles of the system and how it can be applied in Australia.

Q:      Is the Swiss system, which enables electors to demand a referendum on unpopular legislation, a break with the Australian concept of constitutional government, inherited from the British?
A:       No, the traditional British system, sometimes called the Westminster system, was designed to limit the powers of governments and to have the Member of Parliament primarily a representative of his electors. But a number of eminent authorities have pointed out what many people feel: the Westminster system has broken down.

Q:       What are the main causes of this breakdown?
A:       The excessive centralisation of all power, which has led inevitably to an enormous growth in irresponsible bureaucracy beyond the control of parliaments, and a rigid party system which has reduced the Member of Parliament to little more than a rubber stamp and. destroyed the original concept of parliament, as a free assembly in which the respresentatives of the people debated, passed or rejected legislation as they saw, fit.

Q:      Would, then, the introduction of the Swiss constitutional system abolish political parties?
A:. No. Switzerland has a number of political parties. But the Member of Parliament is more responsible to his electors and not regimented. The party system as known in Australia today is a relatively modern development. Originally in Great Britain most of the Members of the House of Commons were Independents. Even after the party system developed, a sprinkling of Independents was regarded as essential for a healthy parliament.

Q:       What is the essence of the Swiss system?
A:       That the electors can, if they feel strongly enough, either veto unwanted legislation by a referendum, put forward their own proposed legislation, this to be put to a referendum, or recall a Member of Parliament not regarded as satisfactory.

Q:       But what is the mechanism for doing these things?
A:       The people have the constitutional right to petition and if the proscribed number of people properly present a petition, it must be acted upon.

Q:      Are the Swiss legislators obliged to abide by whatever the decision of the electors may be?
A:       That is correct.

Q:      Is this not a novel idea for Australia?
A:       No. Their forebears agreed on a Federal Constitution which provided that before any change could be made to that Constitution, there had to be a referendum of the Australian people and, because the Federation was an agreement between separate self-governing States, a referendum was not deemed to be successful unless a majority of electors in a majority of States supported the referendum proposals.

Q:      But what about the Swiss principle of the electors being able to veto legislation, has this ever been used in Australia?
A:          Originally all Australian State Local Government Acts included a provision which enabled ratepayers to petition for a referendum concerning any proposed loans. But this democratic right has been progressively withdrawn from all Local Government Acts, yet another manifestation of the retreat from genuine democracy.

Q:       Did the Swiss system enjoy much support when it was originally discussed in Australia?
A:         The original Labor Party advocated the principle of the Initiative, Referendum and Recall from its beginnings late last century. A number of non-Labor politicians supported it, along with the then influential Australian Natives Association and a number of papers of which the most prominent was the Melbourne Age.

Q:      Was any attempt made to legislate for the system?
A:       In 1915 the Labor government in Queensland introduced the Popular Initiative and Referendum Bill,  but,  after it had been introduced four times, and the Upper House indicated it would not support the referendum principle if initiated by the legislature, not directly by the people, the question was eventually dropped in 1919, primarily because the incoming Labor Premier, Edward Theodore, unlike his predecessor T.J. Ryan, said the people were too fickle and irresponsible to have a say by referendum.In 1914 the famous W.M. (Billy) Hughes sought leave in the Federal Parliament to initiate an Initiative Referendum Bill. Although this was not proceeded with, the Hughes Labor government did put the conscription question to the people in two referendums.

Q:      Were no further attempts made to introduce the Swiss system by the Federal Labor Party?
A:       Led by Dr. W.A. Maloney, a small group of Labor Members in the House of Representatives carried on a campaign in favour of the Swiss system up until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Q:      Why did the Labor Party lose interest in the concept?
A:       The character of the original Labor Party had changed and war-time conditions had encouraged the totalitarian philosophy,  that governments were omnipotent. The Swiss system actually remained as part of the Australian Labor Party platform until 1963, when it was removed on the motion of former South Australian Premier Don Dunstan. The changed philosophy of the Labor Party has been expressed by Sentor Gareth Evans, who says that the electors are not equipped to make responsible decisions on matters of taxation and government spending. But if electors are not equipped to have a say concerning the level of taxation they are prepared to accept, the clock has been turned back hundreds of years to a time when there was little check on the amount of taxation a King could levy.

Q:      How did the system of Initiative Referendum and Recall originate in Switzerland?
A: The idea itself, of direct legislative control, is a very old one, going back to the early Greek democracies in the City States where eventually the practice of all the electors coming together was replaced with the concept of the electors selecting people to represent them.The idea is deeply rooted in Swiss history and was first adopted at the Local or Canton level (Cantons having more powers than Australian Municipal governments but less than State governments) from 1830 onwards. The 1848 Constitution required a compulsory referendum for any proposed total revision of the Constitution. This was removed in 1874 giving a specific number of electors or eight Cantons the right to demand a referendum on any act of parliament.

Q:      Have the results of the Initiative Referendum and Recall system been generally beneficial in Switzerland?
A:       The Swiss people are very proud of the system and there have been no suggestions that a system which provides for an effective say by the people should be abolished.

Q:      Has Switzerland the same problems so seriously affecting other countries?
A:          Switzerland is far from perfect, but with electors having the power to check their governments (Local and Federal) it is not surprising that taxation is relatively low, one result being that Switzerland has had one of the lowest inflation rates in the world. It is generally agreed that Switzerland is one of the most stable countries in the world with far fewer social problems than other countries.When the famous Russian exile, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, left the Soviet Union and first resided in Switzerland, he said that the Swiss Constitutional system was a model for the whole world. He was most impressed with a society in which there was a minimum of friction and a high morale as a result of the people being able to have some say in their own affairs.

Q:      What is a specific example of how the Swiss system works?
A:          Switzerland had never joined the United Nations. But in recent years there has been increasing pressure on the Swiss government to join. Under the Swiss Constitution it is mandatory for the Federal government, following a 1977 change to the Swiss Constitution to submit any proposed international agreement of indefinite duration to a referendum of the people. The Swiss electors decisively rejected the proposal to join the United Nations, approximately 70 percent of the electors voting against it. They had a real say about the future of their country.At present Australians have no mechanism by which they can prevent Federal Governments violating the spirit and intentions of the Constitution by exploiting the External Powers of the Constitution to make international agreements of far-reaching implications. A disturbing example is the placing of increasing areas of Australia under the World Heritage Commission, controlled by the United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation.If the principles of the Swiss system applied, Australians could halt this surrender of Australia’s independence.

Q:      It has been alleged that the Initiative Referendum and Recall system could lead to demagoguery and mob rule. Is there any possibility of this happening?
A:       This is merely one of the allegations made by those who distrust the people having a say. There have been a number of demagogues in countries dominated by party politics, but none in Switzerland. People only turn to demagogues, as Germans turned to Hitler, when they are fearful and desperate. Hitler had relatively little impact on the German-speaking Swiss.

Q:      Where the system has been introduced, in Switzerland and later in Italy, Austria and twenty-four American States, has there been any attempts to abolish the system?
A:       Where the system has been tried, either part or in whole, there is nothing but enthusiasm and efforts to extend the system. Support is growing rapidly in the U.S.A., while there has been a renewed interest in Canada, where several of the Provinces once had features of the system, and where it is still used for local community issues.

Q:      Would the party system be abolished with the introduction of the Initiative Referendum and Recall system?
A:       Not necessarily. But the dictatorship of the party machine would be weakened. There are a number of parties in Switzerland but there is greater co-operation between them than is the case in Australia. With the Swiss system operating the Member of Parliament who genuinely wishes to represent the wishes of his electors, feels more independent.

Q:      But would not deciding major questions by referendum be rather a waste of time and money as the Australian people nearly always vote NO at referendums? Would they not say No to all propopsals?
A:       The Australian people have only voted NO at an over­whelming majorty of referendums because they instinctively oppose all proposals which they fear will centralise power. People generally have more commonsense than elitists credit them with.

Q:          Opponents of the Swiss system have fostered the fear that radical minorities would be given an opportunity to disrupt society by forcing referendums. Is there any possibility of this?
A:       The Swiss system requires that a relatively large percentage of total electors, at least 4 percent, must present a proper petition, either to have a referendum on proposed legislation, or to veto proposed or existing government legislation. Anyone with any experience of obtaining signatures to petitions knows that if 4 percent of the electorate can be organised to sign a petition, there is substantial community support. But the real test comes when an issue must be voted on by the total electorate.Many of the radical minority groups would find it impossible to get the necessary support for a referendum, or if they did,  would be hopelessly outvoted at a general referendum. The Swiss system would effectively expose that many radical groups have no real community support, thus preventing them, often with the aid of the media, from blackmailing politicians.

Q:      What about the financial cost of conducting referendums?
A:       This has proved no problem in Switzerland where provision is made for any referendum polls to be held, if required, every three months. Financial costs are higher in Switzerland because the brochures and ballot papers must be published in three major languages German, French and Italian. If Australians are not willing to pay a few dollars a year to finance referendums, then they are not interested in controlling their own affairs. This suggestion is an insult to the people. It has been demonstrated that where people can use the Initiative, Referendum and Recall system, the financial benefits far outweigh the costs of conducting referendum’s, some of which could be conducted at the same time as elections.

Q:      Would the introduction of the Swiss principle undermine in any way the traditional British-based system of government, with Lower Houses, Upper Houses and the Crown?
A:       It would in fact regenerate a system which has been corrupted from its original form and purpose. The ancient right to petition the Crown is already in the Federal Constitution but has been denigrated by the party politicians, who insist that it is now a convention that the Crown’s representative must automatically give the Royal assent to every piece of legislation. Provision could be made for all petitions demanding referendums on challenged legislation to be presented to the Crown, whose re­presentatives would then direct that a government have a referendum conducted. No Royal Assent should be given to any legislation under challenge, and only if a referendum demonstrated that it had the support of the electors. In this way the role of the Crown would be strengthened.

Q:      If the Initiative Referendum were introduced, would not this result in direct legislation and the decline of parliamentary democracy?
A:          Legislation proposed by electors is not a substitute for parliamentary legislation, but a most valuable adjunct to it. In Switzerland, the home of the Initiative Referendum system, most of the legislation enacted originates with parliament. Under the Swiss system, the politicians are much more conscious of the power of their electors even, if necessary, to petition for their recall from Parliament and therefore seek to anticipate that which electors may require.

Q:      What type of issue is it envisaged could be taken up by electors if they had the Initiative Referendum system?
A:          Immigration immediately springs to mind (the Returned Servicemens’ League has suggested a referendum on this); excessive and retrospective taxation, high interest rates, the misuse of the External powers of the Constitution, foreign aid; foreign investments, the fluoridation of public water supplies, government funding of minority groups and their activities, and compulsory voting are all issues of great concern.

Q:      Would not the introduction of the Swiss system involve the electors in an increase in political activities?
A:       That is correct. But these would be activities in which the electors would be keenly interested. There would be an uplift in public morale and a much healthier community spirit, with a breakdown in many of the present divisions in society, as people realised that they could have a real and effective say in their own affairs. Freedom is something which requires constant cultivation. The price ‘of liberty is eternal vigilance . The community would be able to concentrate upon issues instead of the diversions of political personality battles.The only alternative to the adoption of the principles of the Initiative Referendum and Recall, is a continued sinking in the boglands of rigid party politics with the end result the complete totalitarian State.

Q:      Can the Initiative Referendum principle be adopted at all levels of government, Federal, State and Municipal?
A:       As already mentioned, a limited form of the principle has until recently existed at the Municipal level. It could be restored and expanded. It may prove that the adoption of the principle might best be at the Municipal and State level. But this does not mean that the Federal level should be ignored; far from it.

Q:      How can the Swiss principle be implemented?
A:       In the same way that the Australian people created their own Federal Constitution. The concept first grew in the minds of farsighted men. It had to be fostered by a grassroots movement. Only when the public demand becomes strong enough will the principle be adopted by the politicians. If present politicians will not pledge to work to introduce the principle, or permit the electors to decide by referendum whether or not they want to have the principle implemented, they will have to be replaced by others who will. There are no short-cuts to success; hard work is required by dedicated people along with the use of the type of innovations developed by the pioneers of the Australian nation.


© Published by the Australian League of Rights, P.O. Box 27 Happy Valley, SA 5159