If the Austrian government’s overall performance is to improve, the government must examine and debate specific institutional and policy features more thoroughly.
Central executive should be strengthened
From an institutional perspective, strengthening the authority of the central executive could significantly improve government efficiency. Within Austria’s parliamentary system, this would involve the Federal Chancellery, not the Office of the Federal President. It could also imply strengthening the party of the chancellor – a move not in the interest of any coalition partner. In either case, it would certainly require shifting power from the state (Länder) governments to the federal government.
The fragmentation of the party system since the 1980s seems to have stopped. In 2017, all three major parties won votes (ÖVP, FPÖ and SPÖ), especially the ÖVP. It remains to be seen whether such a re-alignment of the party system is an exception or marks an end to the established trend.
A specific 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. A permanent coalition would guarantee government stability, while greater direct participation would provide the possibility to correct decisions made by a cartel-like government structure.
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 is inherently a 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 investigative committee, was a significant improvement.
Rebalance state-federal tasks
Current imbalances between the federal and state levels of government could be improved through a better separation of powers. There are two options: either allow the states to raise their own taxes or increase centralization. Allowing the states to raise their own taxes could result in decreased spending, but may also encourage unfavorable tax competition between very small jurisdictions. Meanwhile, given the small size of Austria, centralization of certain authorities (e.g., education or public health care) now seems mandatory.
Make migration policy more coherent
A more coherent migration policy – an increasingly urgent subject given the recent mass immigration into 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. From a democratic perspective, the negative consequences of intra-European economic migration on less educated populations and more vulnerable sections of the Austrian workforce must be addressed, if those people are not to be left to populist seduction.
In terms of education, Austria’s school system could benefit from 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 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, and measures such as admission examinations and student fees evaluated with regard to effects on the social composition of students.
Update, enforce environmental policies
Environmental policies must be updated and better enforced, with a particular focus on a significant reduction of CO2 emitted by vehicle traffic and industry. The challenges arising from Austria’s geographic position as a transit country can only be addressed by improving cargo-rail infrastructure, which implies the need for coherent modal shift policies and substantial investment in rail infrastructure. This would be best combined with policies facilitating research and production of more green technologies. Finally, public resources should be more equitably allocated between older and younger generations, especially with respect to retirement policies and the health care sector.
The European dimension of these reforms is evident in all policy areas. A migration policy is only feasible if coordinated within the European Union, while any reform of the educational system must draw on lessons provided by other, significantly more successful European education systems. Austria has to deal with the consequences of integration into the European Union, including weakened national sovereignty. It could accept integration into the European Union with all its consequences and try to advance its own national interest within the European political framework. Alternatively, it could follow the example of the so-called Visegrád countries and torpedo the common European interest. The second option not only implies slowing down European integration efforts, but excluding the country from the current construction of a “core European Union,” with all the detrimental effects of such an exclusion on the Austrian economy (and society) at large.
Ludger Helms, David Wineroither (Hrsg,): “Die österreichische Demokratie im Vergleich”. 2.Auflage. Baden-Baden, Wien 2017 (Nomos, facultas)