Swiss style direct democracy?

Regular contributor Donal has asked us to link to his case for Swiss-style citizens initiative and direct democracy, which the Human Rights in Ireland website* has just published as part of the series Shadow Constitutional Convention,
He argues that there may be change in the criteria of decision-making at the top; change in social habits at the bottom. But unless these two are bridged by the mutual education of the democratic process, communication between the top and the bottom may cease. In Ireland, where the stimulus to change is external, something like this may in fact be happening

13 thoughts on “Swiss style direct democracy?

    • Michael,
      As both the file you linked to and the pdf version on the YouGov website are broken, I will not comment until I have read the lecture.

      In the meantime, I suggest that with over 150 years experience, the Swiss experience is from which we can learn.

      The same applies to the 20+ states of the US which have direct democracy.

      • It’s not broken, I’m afraid you don’t have access to it though since it is on the BBC website. My mistake. However, California is the counter-example to Switzerland. Institutions and culture are always bafflingly intertwined and one must never assume that what works in one culture can be superimposed onto another.

        Moreover, I thought that the Swiss ban on mintarets was a horrendous piece of intolerance.

  1. I was about to grab my coat and leave when two relevant posts arrive almost simultaneously. It must be going on a month since we hade even one. Many thanks for providing a link to Donal’s latest offering. It is certainly though-provoking, but I retain major reservations – which I’ve comunicated to Donal.

    And many thanks to Michael Keary for providing a link to Peter Kellner’s Butler Lecture. I downloaded a text version after the event, but I’ve lost the link. It should still be findable with a bit of googling. It is a text that deserves reflection and consideration.

    Though he speaks warmly of CAs as a means, but only a means, of restoring the broken relationship between citizens and their elected representatives, any proposal to apply them needs to include very careful consideration of their role and function. The fact that they may be necessary signals a failure in representative democracy, but, rather than repairing the damage, using them confirms this failure, copperfastens the impotence of parliament and, inevitably, will provoke the opposition of its members. Those attending the gabfest advertised in the previous post might usefully bear that in mind.

    The situation is simlar for ‘citizens’ initiatives’, direct democracy and referendums. I agree with Kellner’s view that they should be used only in extremis when parliament has blatantly gone against considered public opinion. The fact that Ireland seems to require so many amendments to the Constitution – and the associated referendums is the result of a number of inter-locking factors. First, we have a Constitution that is no longer ‘fit-for-purpose’ in the modern era. Secondly, there is a total failure of TDs to legislate for matters that should not be espoused or proscribed in a constitution and an equal total failure to legislate to allow citizens to decide whether or not to put things in that should be in it. Thirdly, there is a strand of public and politcial opinion that favours the bluntness and diviseness of referendums – that ignores all other options, complexities and nuances – to advance their political agenda. And finally, there are continuous efforts, primarily on the left, to enshrine universal economic and social rights, which though desirable, are generally at variance with the extent of the moral sentiments of a majority of citizens who will be required to pay to finance the enforcment of these universal rights.

    The immediate task is to restore representative democracy. Once this is then it can be futher enhanced and reinforced by Donal’s ‘additional precautions’ and the use of CAs. Focusing on these mechanisms now while parliament is supine and impotent and an excessively dominant, centralised and expansive government machine runs riot is totally futile.

    I sometimes wonder do many (but not all) of those who put so much effort in to advancing these ‘auxillary’ mechanisms do so because they wish to deter a focus on repairing and restoring representative democracy since the status quo is very comfortable and they are being wee rewarded. Any discombobulation would be very unwelcome.

    • @Paul
      “deter a focus on repairing and restoring representative democracy since the status quo is very comfortable and they are being wee rewarded. Any discombobulation would be very unwelcome.”
      Frankly, you have lost me on this, as I am not sure what you are trying to say.

      I regard Swiss-style citizens’ initiative/direct democracy as complementary to representative democracy, as is clear from my paper.

      The issue we face in this Republic is the increasing evidence that people think that our political system is badly broken and appears absolutely incapable of reforming itself. In my paper, I provided some evidence to support my point of view.

      As you may recall, I made a number of suggestions to change some aspects of how we govern ourselves – without changing the constitution – in my contribution to the the Dublin City Business Association 10 point manifesto Towards a Second Republic published in February 2011, just as the last general election campaign started here.

      see here – p. 56 and following….

      Click to access Towards-a-Second-Republic.pdf

      and here

  2. I wonder if the important question to ask isn’t really whether Irish people are capable of taking part in such a forum in the sense that evidence indicates we don’t do ‘the national good’ very well and when we try fight our instinctive parochial small village mentality and aim for something bigger, the former invariably wins?

    Aren’t we better facing up to the reality of what we are then trying to pretend we are Swiss or Canadian?

    • @Desmond,
      “our instinctive parochial small village mentality and aim for something bigger”

      Trouble is that we aim for something bigger and have done so since at least WW2. ie. a higher material standard of living.
      If we cannot find here in the Republic, we emigrate as we have done during the 1950s, ’80s and now.

      The powers-that-be seem completely incapable of managing the kind of complexities that lead to a higher sustainable standard of living. I suggest that the recent spat about where to place medical centres is an example of the kind of whimsical government that leads us again and again to arbitrary allocation of resources. Such arbitrary governance does not lead to the accumulation the skills and know-how needed to have the benefits come from well-run organisations. For years ESB was such an organisation, until it became part of what Mancur Olson called a distributional coalition – as confirmed by a leading ESB trade-unionist calling his members “spoilt”

      IMO, it is not a question of us trying to pretend we are Canadian or Swiss or English or American.

      It is simply a question of what can we learn that would assist us build a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful (public or private, elected or appointed, parochial or local or county or national)? When I say scope for excess – I also mean excess of inertia.

      I refuse to believe that we cannot learn how to improve our way of governing ourselves. However, I am firmly convinced that our present governing class do not have a clue about how about the process – even if they actually wanted to do it. Among the current examples is the way they have gone about introducing a new tax on domestic residences coupled with the increasing centralisation/micro-management of many public services.

      As I believe that many Irish people have the experience of building and managing the kind of organisational complexities needed for a sustainable legitimate governance, the issue is how to open the paths to governance in ways that can enhance what the late David Thornley called the “mutual education of the democratic process” – during another time of externally-induced change in the mid-1960s

  3. Donal,

    I fully agree with the thrust of your comments – though I might disagree to some limited extent with the timing and sequencing of some of the solutions you propose. We are better than this. We can demonstrate that we are, in our own best interests, by ensuring we are governed better. I remain convinced that a majority of citizens yearn for better governance, but they elect to represent them appear incapable of taking the steps to deliver it.

    You mention the ESB in passing. Last weekend, at the Dublin Economics Workshop’s annual economic policy conference in Galway I presented irrefutable evidence which shows that, over the last 11 years, the energy regulator, the CER, has been compelled by government policy and legislation to award the ESB an average of €200 million a year of revenue from final consumers over and above what the ESB should be entitled to with efficient and sensible financing of its operations and investments. (Approximately another unnecessary and unjustified €100 million is being extracted from gas consumers in the same manner to finance the operations and investments of Bord Gais since 2003.)

    (For those interested I understand that links to all the papers presented at the DEW’s conference will be available on My paper falls between economics and political science – it is probably under the rubric of political economy. It should have some relevance here, since I have been excluded from commenting on the principal Irish economics blog. Apparently I upest the sensitive souls there by highlighting the extent to which so many Irish academics are conflicted, compromised and constrained.)

    Nobody had any interest in addressing this ‘gouging’ of approx. €300 million a year from all households in the state during the ‘double bubble’ period. Now that so many households are under severe economic pressure it is border-line criminal for the Government to continue enforcing this policy.

    That the Government seeks to pretend this is not happening and simply rejects the irrefutable evidence that it is happening is a perfect example of the continuing failure of governance in Ireland. FF will not address it because it was the 1997-2002 government that drove through the legislation that compels the CER to perform this ‘gouging’. The Government will not address it because Labour would cut up rough. There are enough strains in the coalition without more being added. And there is a Labour Minister in charge. SF and the motley hard-left crew won’t touch it because state-owned companies can do no wrong.

    The interests of the vast majority of households and citizens, quite simply, are not being represented. Their interests are being sacrificed by all the factions in the Oireachtas for the sake of poltical convenience and in the interests of the relatively few who benefit.

    This is a concrete example of the rot that should be tackled. But it won’t – and I think we all know why. If something as blatant as this can’t be resolved, there is absolutely no prospect of any improvement in governance.

    • @Paul
      “We are better than this. We can demonstrate that we are, in our own best interests, by ensuring we are governed better. I remain convinced that a majority of citizens yearn for better governance, but they elect to represent them appear incapable of taking the steps to deliver it.”

      I agree .

      As we both know, TDs are the only people who actually have power – our power, which we have given to them – to make the changes needed for better governance.

      The issue is how do we find a means of giving ourselves better governance and sustaining it.

      • My response is simple. Pick an issue that impacts on every citizen. I have presented such an issue in my previous comment that encapsulates everything that is wrong with the system of governance in Ireland. Explain to citizens that they are being seriously overcharged for electricity and gas for the political convenience of governing politicians and for the benefit of a relatively small group of rent seekers. Then suggest that they contact their TDs to demand a change in policy to remove this unnecessary cost burden. Governing politcians have the power to make the necessary changes if sufficient democratic pressure is exerted on them from the ground up.

        The UK PM David Cameron panicked last week when he announced a decision to legislate to control final electricity and gas prices. He has tried to row back since then, but it’s pretty clear that this was driven by his backbenchers whose email inboxes and post bags are bulging with expressions of the frustration and anger of thier constituents about high and increasing energy prices.

        Irish citizens are too docile. They need to exert the appropriate pressure on those they elect to legislate and to govern. I remain convinced that overcharging for electricity and gas is the kind of issue that could rouse their anger and encourage them to demand that their elected politicians do their jobs in the public interest.

  4. @Paul

    “Irish citizens are too docile.”
    Perhaps. One third have not paid the 2011 Household Charge. This recalls the pretty widespread evasion of DIRT during the 1980s.

    “They need to exert the appropriate pressure on those they elect to legislate and to govern. I remain convinced that overcharging for electricity and gas is the kind of issue that could rouse their anger and encourage them to demand that their elected politicians do their jobs in the public interest.”

    You may well be right. So overcharging for electricity and gas ceases – by what seems like arbitrary government intervention – probably done in time for an election. While that could enhance all our lives, what is to stop it being a once-off?

    There are examples the kind of pressure you advocate getting results eg. no water charges in Dublin, the rod-license dispute.

    In what way would such an experience of success
    1) change the culture and practice of the governing class;
    2) increase and sustainable powers for TDs to make the powers-that-be accountable;
    3) improve the skills and competence of the state class;
    4) lead to the development of checks and balances to limit the scope for similar excesses (including inertia) afterwards?

  5. Donal,

    I would argue that the overcharging for electricity and gas is fundamentally different from the other issues you have raised. It is a litmus test. Almost all TDs, comprising those who are subservient to a party-line, those in hock to the benefitting sectional interests or those weighed down by out-dated ideological baggage, either explicitly or implicitly accept the status quo of electricity and gas over-charging. Conversely, they would find it almost impossible to authorise the restructuring and re-financing of the ESB and Bord Gais that would be required to eliminate this unnecessary and excessive cost burden that is being imposed on consumers and the economy. Therefore, no government will risk proposing the policy changes required.

    As a result, almost all TDs support, either by default or overtly, the continued implementation of a policy that is detrminental to the interests of the vast majority of their constituents and to the economy. Most TDs, whether in government or not, and public officials seek to maintain this stance by denying the existence of the blatant over-charging that is taking place. The ESB and Bord Gais find themselves in the blessed position of being able to nip in the bud any hint of a policy change that would benefit consumers but which would impact on their structure and operations in a manner not to their liking.

    If they are confronted with the possibility of policy changes that they oppose all the boards and managements of these semi-states have to do is to hint at the possibility of being unable to restrain the response of the trades unions representing their staff. And there is an entire army of public officials in other agencies, academics, lawyers, accountants, PR operatives, economists, consultants, etc. which is fully supportive of the ESB’s and BGE’s stance. The Department, the CER , the ESB and BGE are the principal sources of demand for these external services in the Irish energy sector.

    This is a perfect example of Official Ireland versus the majority of citizens, with Official Ireland implementing policies that benefit some self-selected sectional interests and are detrimental to the interests of the vast majority of consumers and to the economy.

    There really is no better place to start – to begin to open citizens’ eyes to the damage that is being done to their interests and to the economy and that is fully sanctioned by the TDs they have elected.

  6. Since there’s so little posting here I thought I’d link to this interesting take by Jane Suiter and Theresa Reidy:

    It seems very relevant to this thread.

    There is also an interesting piece in The Economist:

    which highlights the increased ‘bolshiness’ of backbench MPs in Britain and the extent to which it is forcing a re-balancing of the powers of parliament and government.

    Trying to tie it all together the case should be clear: legislators should legislate; they are not an arm of government. And legislators should scrutinise government and hold it to account; governments can act only in accordance with the legislation the legislators have enacted. There are, of course, rights that need to be enshrined in the Constitution, but legislators should be free to modify the enforcement of these rights as social behaviour and the body of public opinion changes slowly over time – and as advances in science, technology and human understanding impact.

    When we look with a clear eye at how representative parliamentary democracy should function – and taking account of improvements in its functioning in Britain and in other EU member states – it highlights how dysfunctional the entire system is in Ireland.

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