Introducing the system of
Initiative, Referendum and Recall
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
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
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.
Would, then, the introduction of the Swiss constitutional system abolish
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
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.
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.
Are the Swiss legislators obliged to abide by whatever the decision
of the electors may be?
A: That is correct.
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
But what about the Swiss principle of the electors being able to veto
legislation, has this ever been used in Australia?
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.
Did the Swiss system enjoy much support when it was originally discussed
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.
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.
no further attempts made to introduce the Swiss system by the Federal
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.
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
How did the system of Initiative Referendum and Recall originate in
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.
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.
Has Switzerland the same problems so seriously affecting other countries?
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.
What is a specific example of how the Swiss system works?
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 Australias independence.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 referendums,
some of which could be conducted at the same time as elections.
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 Crowns 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.
If the Initiative Referendum were introduced, would not this result
in direct legislation and the decline of parliamentary democracy?
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.
What type of issue is it envisaged could be taken up by electors if
they had the Initiative Referendum system?
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.
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
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.
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.