If the Austrian government’s performance is to be improved overall, it must examine and debate specific institutional and policy features more thoroughly.
Stronger core executive could boost efficiency but would require broader electoral reform
From an institutional perspective, strengthening the authority of the central executive could significantly help to improve government efficiency. Within Austria’s parliamentary system, this would involve the Federal Chancellery, not the office of the federal president. However, because this would effectively strengthen a single coalition partner, any such move would be controversial within today’s coalition environment. Thus, in order to achieve this reform, the electoral system itself, which de facto does not allow any single party to win a majority on the federal level, must be reformed. In recent years, there has been some debate over the possibility of abandoning the proportional system in favor of a single-member constituency system as in the United Kingdom or France. This would make it possible for one party to win an overall majority in parliament, ending the necessity for coalition cabinets. Such a reform is unlikely as the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) enjoys a lead in surveys right now.
Weakened parties make reform harder
The ongoing fragmentation of the party system makes any such structural reform even more difficult. As the two large parties, Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) – primarily responsible for governing Austria since 1945 – are less and less able to mobilize voters, and the parties which are profiting from this trend are more polarized among themselves than the two current governing parties. The general outlook for strategic reform is not optimistic.
Looking to the Swiss model
Exactly for that reason, another strategic option to improve the response to new challenges would be to follow the Swiss model: legally establish a permanent coalition of all major parties with significant improvements for direct voter participation. The first would guarantee government stability, the second would provide the possibility of correcting decisions made by a cartel-like government structure.
Stronger oversight a plus
For its part, the parliament’s efficiency could be improved by giving the opposition the right to better monitor government activities. With the exception of the vote of confidence (which of course has to be largely the right of the majority) all oversight competencies can and should become minority rights. The 2014 reform, which made it possible for a minority to establish an investigating committee, must be seen as a significant improvement.
Need to separate governing levels more clearly
Current imbalances between the federal and the state levels of government could be improved through a better separation of competences. There are two options: either to allow the states to raise their own taxes, which could result in decreased spending but also potentially unfavorable tax competition among very small jurisdictions, or to increase centralization. Moreover, the current sharing of responsibilities in fields such as education or the public health system should be replaced by a more clearly defined separation of powers.
Migration policy a critical weakness
A number of specific policy issues could also be far better addressed than is currently the case. For example, a more coherent migration policy - an increasingly urgent subject giving the recent mass migration movements affecting Austria - would allow the government to better manage the challenges and benefits associated with migration, many of which are not fully acknowledged. Migration policies that define who to attract and how to facilitate their integration into Austrian society are a must these days. Improved management of asylum applications is also needed if this cultural and legal achievement is to be sustained and social cohesion fostered.
Labor market needs
Another issue concerns unemployment, which has grown continuously in recent years. In a context of a growing influx of migrants, improving labor market policy is all the more important.
School system calls for improvements
In terms of education, Austria’s school system could benefit from a coherent reform of its two-track system which determines an individual’s educational and vocational trajectory at an early age. Moreover, a new university-system structure is needed so as to secure adequate funding for universities and students. Access to the tertiary sector for students from the middle and lower social strata should be improved.
Green policy update needed
Environmental policies must be updated and better enforced, with a particular focus on a significant reduction of CO2 emissions by vehicle traffic and industry. This would be best combined with policies facilitating research and production of more green technologies within Austria. Finally, public resources should be more fairly allocated and balanced among the older and younger generations, especially with respect to retirement policies and the health care sector.
Europe is answer to globalization’s challenges
In all cases, the European dimension of these reforms is evident. A migration policy is only feasible if coordinated within the European Union, for example, while any reform of the educational system must draw from the lessons provided by other, significantly more successful European school and university systems. Austria has to accept integration into the European Union with all its consequences, including weakened national sovereignty. If government structure and efficiency is to be sustainably improved, Europeanization must be accepted as the country’s only feasible answer to globalization.