Austria

   

Executive Accountability

#10
Key Findings
With ample legislative oversight powers and a well-integrated civil society, Austria scores well overall (rank 10) in terms of executive accountability. Its overall score on this measure is unchanged relative to 2014.

Opposition parties have comparatively new and growing investigative powers, expanding parliamentary oversight capabilities. However, party discipline and government-party majorities generally limit executive monitoring in practice. The Court of Audit is underfunded but independent, and the data-protection office also acts independently.

Public discourse has shifted in favor of increasing citizens’ role in decision-making processes, but the ÖVP-FPÖ government did not follow promises to make plebiscites easier to secure. Social media “bubbles” are fragmenting the public discourse. An expected reworking of the public-media law following criticism by the right-wing FPÖ was abandoned following the government collapse.

While nomination authority within the center-right ÖVP has become highly centralized, the SPÖ has given party members a stronger role in internal decisions. Traditional economic and religious interest groups have been routinely consulted on important measures, with some notable recent exceptions.

Citizens’ Participatory Competence

#18

To what extent are citizens informed of public policies?

10
 9

Most citizens are well-informed of a broad range of public policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many citizens are well-informed of individual public policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few citizens are well-informed of public policies; most citizens have only a rudimental knowledge of public policies.
 2
 1

Most citizens are not aware of public policies.
Political Knowledge
5
A minority of Austrian citizens are well informed, but the majority is informed only within rather narrow limits. On the one hand, this is because political parties (and the government) do not provide full information on decision-makers’ debates and strategic thinking. On the other, it is due to the characteristics of the Austrian print media, with the yellow press (and its often very strong bias) dominating large parts of the print-media market. However, a majority of Austrians show limited interest in politics, a characteristic perhaps reinforced by the comparatively minimal opportunity for direct participation within the political system.

Social media is reinforcing the existing tendency toward fragmentation. Information and communication “bubbles” exist where politically aligned citizens strengthen the opinions of other similarly aligned citizens. In particular, this has been used by politicians (e.g., by Heinz-Christian Strache, FPÖ chairman until 2019) who interpret the number of “likes” on social media platforms (e.g., Facebook) as an indicator of political success.

One thread of political discourse in Austria has focused on increasing citizens’ direct role within decision-making processes, a discussion that helped lead to the popular referendum in 2013 over the future of the military draft. In this, a majority opted for keeping the draft system rather than creating a professional army. In spite of the non-binding character of this consultation, all political parties agreed that the result should be respected. The public discourse generally favors more direct-democratic participation. And some particularly sensitive topics, such as the possibility of Turkey’s EU membership, lead to promises by most or all political parties to have binding popular consultations before government and parliament determine Austria’s final position.

The ÖVP-FPÖ government (2017 – 2019) promised to lower the threshold for securing a plebiscite. However, in practice, the government has shown no interest in fulfilling this promise, as it does not want to be blocked by citizen initiatives. This may have an important impact on decision-making, but it will not change the reality of public knowledge in Austria. Interest in politics is not equally distributed among citizens.

A specific Austrian problem is that there is no general civic education curriculum in the Austrian school system – and this deficit has an impact on the general level of political knowledge.

Does the government publish data and information in a way that strengthens citizens’ capacity to hold the government accountable?

10
 9

The government publishes data and information in a comprehensive, timely and user-friendly way.
 8
 7
 6


The government most of the time publishes data and information in a comprehensive, timely and user-friendly way.
 5
 4
 3


The government publishes data in a limited and not timely or user-friendly way.
 2
 1

The government publishes (almost) no relevant data.
Open Government
6
The ÖVP-FPÖ government (2017 – 2019), as its predecessor had, paid lip service to the idea of open government. However, like its predecessor, its promises were not followed by significant new policy actions. The Austrian government is not a “closed shop” – access to government data (e.g., provided by the government’s websites) is possible and the opposition’s right to information concerning significant developments is not disputed. But this is not the high level of open government that may be expected considering the promises given by this and former governments. The proposed freedom of information act remains stuck in parliament and it appears likely that it will stay there for many more years to come.
The government has made an effort to facilitate the provision of scientific micro-data, but it is still much more difficult for researchers to access essential data compared to, for example, researchers in Nordic countries. Any government (rightfully) has to consider the possible contradiction between open government and the principle of protecting sensible (especially personal) data.

Legislative Actors’ Resources

#12

Do members of parliament have adequate personnel and structural resources to monitor government activity effectively?

10
 9

The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring all government activity effectively.
 8
 7
 6


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for monitoring a government’s major activities.
 5
 4
 3


The members of parliament as a group can draw on a set of resources suited for selectively monitoring some government activities.
 2
 1

The resources provided to the members of parliament are not suited for any effective monitoring of the government.
Parliamentary Resources
7
The two-chambered Austrian parliament, in which the National Council (Nationalrat) or lower house holds more power than the Federal Council (Bundesrat), is divided along two main cleavages. First, the strength of political party groupings within the parliament reflect the results of direct national elections (in the National Council) as well as indirect provincial elections (in the Federal Council). Second, the formation of coalitions creates a government and a parliamentary opposition.

All party groups that have at least five members in the National Council can use infrastructure (office space, personnel) paid by public funds and provided by parliament. All party groups are represented on all committees, in proportion to their strength. In plenary sessions, speaking time is divided by special agreements among the parties, typically according to the strength of the various party groups.

Individual members’ ability to use resources independently of their respective parties has improved in recent years. Members of parliament can now hire a small number of persons for a personal staff that is funded by parliament and not by the party. This improves members’ independence. However, this independence is still limited by the strong culture of party discipline, which is not defined by explicit rules but rather by the party leadership’s power to nominate committee members and electoral candidates.

A significant step was taken in 2014 to improve the National Council’s capacity. The right to install an investigating committee, which has been the prerogative of the ruling majority, has now become a minority right. Considering the rather strict party discipline in Austria’s parliament, this must be considered a significant improvement of parliamentary democracy. Also, recently a new subgroup in the parliament was founded which is checking laws for economic costs and benefits.

At the moment, the working conditions of members of the Austrian parliament are better than ever before. The new situation following the elections of 2017 has already intensified conflicts between the government and opposition in parliament. The result of the 2019 elections is unlikely to reduce (legitimate) inter-party conflicts in parliament. The structural prerequisites for parliamentary confrontations exist and this will be used by the opposition in confrontations with the governing majority.

Are parliamentary committees able to ask for government documents?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may ask for most or all government documents; they are normally delivered in full and within an appropriate time frame.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are slightly limited; some important documents are not delivered or are delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to ask for government documents are considerably limited; most important documents are not delivered or delivered incomplete or arrive too late to enable the committee to react appropriately.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not request government documents.
Obtaining Documents
9
Currently, all parliamentary committees have the power to ask for any kind of document. However, documents deemed “secret” can only be viewed in a special parliamentary room and cannot be copied.

Significant portions in government documents obtained by newly formed investigative committees were redacted, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting privacy. This resulted in an uproar among members of parliament and demonstrated, that committees are entitled to obtain documents, yet the government can create significant limitations in accessing parts of these documents.

In its recent decision, the Austrian Constitutional Court has once more strengthened the position of investigative committees, relative to the government, when it comes to obtaining documents and other data.

Citations:
VfGH, UA 1/2018-15, 14.9.2018

Are parliamentary committees able to summon ministers for hearings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon ministers. Ministers regularly follow invitations and are obliged to answer questions.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are slightly limited; ministers occasionally refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon ministers are considerably limited; ministers frequently refuse to follow invitations or to answer questions.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon ministers.
Summoning Ministers
8
Parliamentary committees may summon ministers. When summoned, ministers (or their state secretaries) do attend the respective meetings. The legal ability to summon ministers is in practice limited by the majority that the government parties have in all committees. As the majority party groups tend to follow the policy defined by the cabinet, there typically is little interest in summoning cabinet members, at least against the minister’s will.

While this de facto limitation can be seen as part of the logic of a parliamentary system in which the government and the parliamentary majority are essentially a single political entity, the high level of party discipline in Austria creates an additional influence. Under the ÖVP-FPÖ government (2017 – 2019), members of the parliamentary opposition accused cabinet members of failing to answer in detail (written or verbal) questions asked by the opposition. In a parliament in which three opposition parties compete to be the most effective opposition, as will likely be the case following the 2019 elections, future governments will face greater criticism regarding their willingness to answer critical questions in parliament as extensively as possible.

Are parliamentary committees able to summon experts for committee meetings?

10
 9

Parliamentary committees may summon experts.
 8
 7
 6


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


The rights of parliamentary committees to summon experts are considerably limited.
 2
 1

Parliamentary committees may not summon experts.
Summoning Experts
10
Parliamentary committees have no formal limits in terms of summoning experts. Every party, including the opposition (i.e., the committee’s minority parties), can nominate or invite experts it deems qualified. Expert hearings are held quite regularly.

However, this opportunity is not used in the best-possible way. The twin factors of party discipline and cabinet dominance over the parliament’s majority mean that independent expert voices do not ultimately have great influence.

Are the task areas and structures of parliamentary committees suited to monitor ministries effectively?

10
 9

The match between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are well-suited to the effective monitoring of ministries.
 8
 7
 6


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are largely suited to the monitoring ministries.
 5
 4
 3


The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are partially suited to the monitoring of ministries.
 2
 1

The match/mismatch between the task areas of parliamentary committees and ministries as well as other relevant committee structures are not at all suited to the monitoring of ministries.
Task Area Congruence
9
Though parliamentary committees outnumber ministries, the task areas of parliamentary committees are more or less identical to the tasks of the ministries with only minor exceptions. The National Council’s General Committee enjoys a kind of overall competence, including deciding the government’s position within the European Council.

Media

#20

To what extent do media in your country analyze the rationale and impact of public policies?

10
 9

A clear majority of mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing the rationale and impact of public policies.
 8
 7
 6


About one-half of the mass media brands focus on high-quality information content analyzing the rationale and impact of public policies. The rest produces a mix of infotainment and quality information content.
 5
 4
 3


A clear minority of mass media brands focuses on high-quality information content analyzing public policies. Several mass media brands produce superficial infotainment content only.
 2
 1

All mass media brands are dominated by superficial infotainment content.
Media Reporting
6
The freedom of the press in Austria is guaranteed by European and national law. Nevertheless, two problems are relevant:

• The Austrian media lack pluralism. The publicly owned Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) dominates the radio and television broadcast markets, although competition by foreign and privately owned media is growing. In response to criticism of this dominance, the ORF offers guarantees of internal independence and internal political pluralism. The ORF is impartial by law and fulfills its mandate reasonably well, making up for deficits existing elsewhere in the media environment. The increasing significance of social media is a deepening challenge because it is not bound by the rules of impartiality as the ORF is.

• The country’s print-media market is highly concentrated. One daily paper, Die Kronen Zeitung, serves more than a third of the country’s readership, and increasingly uses this dominant position to issue biased political information, often in a simplified manner. Moreover, the expanding role of freely distributed print media, more or less dependent on funds for commercial or political promotion is problematic insofar as it makes it more difficult for readers to distinguish propaganda from information. High-quality political information is available from daily and weekly papers with more limited circulation, but high-quality media face considerable financial difficulties.

Any new government will have an impact on media reporting, especially concerning the ORF. The ORF faces ever-more criticism from the right-wing FPÖ, which was in government between 2017 and 2019, for the ORF’s understanding of independent journalism. During the 2017 – 2019 legislative period, it was expected that the law which defines the structure, functions and finances of the ORF would be rewritten. However, the governing coalition imploded before any legislative activity was started.

Regarding the print media, the problem of high concentration remains the main challenge for a system which guarantees media freedom but does not seem to offer enough pluralistic choices. The impact of social media has been acknowledged but no clear political strategy has been developed for dealing with media beyond the traditional rules of responsibility.

Parties and Interest Associations

#25

How inclusive and open are the major parties in their internal decision-making processes?

10
 9

The party allows all party members and supporters to participate in its decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and agendas of issues are open.
 8
 7
 6


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, all party members have the opportunity to participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are rather open.
 5
 4
 3


The party restricts decision-making to party members. In most cases, a number of elected delegates participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are largely controlled by the party leadership.
 2
 1

A number of party leaders participate in decisions on the most important personnel and issues. Lists of candidates and issue agendas are fully controlled and drafted by the party leadership.
Intra-party Decision-Making
4
The Austrian party system is in an ongoing process of deconcentration. The traditionally dominant parties – the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and the conservative, Christian-democratic Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP) have experienced an almost uninterrupted decline since 1980. In 1979, the two parties were able to win a combined total of more than 90% of votes. In 2013, the parties were down to a combined total of about 50%. In 2019, the combined total of both parties again rose to more than 58%.

In general, political parties have spent little time developing intra-party democracy and have focused instead on appealing to specific groups, whose support is considered necessary to win elections.

In preparation for the 2017 general elections, the ÖVP changed its traditional procedure for nominating candidates. The party transferred total authority for the nomination process to one person, the party’s candidate for the Chancellor’s Office, Sebastian Kurz. This did not change for the 2019 elections, with the ÖVP remaining the party of one figure, Sebastian Kurz. This situation will probably remain as long as the (former and likely new) chancellor (and party chairman) enjoys widespread popularity. Nonetheless, this development must be seen as a significant decline in intra-party democracy.

In contrast to the ÖVP, the other parties have followed their traditional procedures, ensuring that the different intra-party interests continue to be represented. After losing its primary position in parliament and now in opposition, the SPÖ has started to reform its internal decision-making procedures, which will give party members a stronger role. This was exemplified in the decision about the new mayor of Vienna, Michael Ludwig. For the federal level, new rules are still being discussed and the new party leader, Joy Pamela Rendi-Wagner, was chosen by the traditional process.

To what extent are economic interest associations (e.g., employers, industry, labor) capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Employers & Unions)
7
The role of economic interest groups is still very strong in Austria: Significant associations include the Austrian Economic Chambers (Wirtschaftskammern) and the Federation of Austrian Industry (Die Industriellenvereinigung) for business and employers; the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund) and the Austrian Federal Chamber of Labor (Arbeiterkammern) for employees; and the Chamber of Agriculture (Landwirtschaftskammern) for farmers. In many cases, interest groups continue to formulate (almost) complete laws by themselves, which parliament subsequently only needs to approve. These groups’ ability to shape politics may have been reduced as a result of Austria’s integration into the European Union, but within domestic politics, their influence remains very strong. Though formally independent of political parties, the groups have various individual links to the parties, especially to the Social Democratic Party and the Austrian People’s Party. Moreover, their influence is enhanced by their practice of acting in a coordinated, neo-corporatist way through the social-partnership network.

This has changed to some extent. First, because of the FPÖ’s entry into coalition government with the ÖVP in 2017. As traditionally the FPÖ, in contrast to the ÖVP and SPÖ, does not have strong links to economic interest groups, the FPÖ-ÖVP government was less inclined to accept the economic interest groups. Though more importantly, there has been a general decline in the ability of interest associations to create stable loyalties due to generational change.

To what extent are non-economic interest associations capable of formulating relevant policies?

10
 9

Most interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 8
 7
 6


Many interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 5
 4
 3


Few interest associations are highly capable of formulating relevant policies.
 2
 1

Most interest associations are not capable of formulating relevant policies.
Association Competence (Others)
6
Along with economic interest groups, organized religious communities, particularly the officially recognized denominations, have a formalized role within the decision-making process. The peculiar Austrian institution of “officially recognized religious denomination” institutionalizes the participation of major religious groups within policymaking. Like the economic interest groups, they are consulted before the cabinet approves the draft of a law. This is a critical stage of the process, as most cabinet-approved drafts are also approved by parliament.

It must be emphasized, however, that not all draft proposals are subject to consultation procedures. A ruling majority can push a legislative agenda through its members in parliament, without formal consultations with interest groups. This happens from time to time when the government is in a hurry to pass a bill.

A number of other groups occasionally exert notable influence, including the physicians’ chamber, various environmental groups (such as Greenpeace) and some human rights organizations (such as Amnesty International).

The capability of noneconomic groups to formulate policies is not as stronger as in the case of economic interest groups, particularly professional associations.

Independent Supervisory Bodies

#3

Does there exist an independent and effective audit office?

10
 9

There exists an effective and independent audit office.
 8
 7
 6


There exists an effective and independent audit office, but its role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


There exists an independent audit office, but its role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

There does not exist an independent and effective audit office.
Audit Office
10
The Austrian Court of Audit (Rechnungshof) is an instrument of parliament. The office reports regularly to parliament, and parliament can order it to perform specific tasks. As a consequence, the parliamentary majority determines how to handle audit reports, and in cases of doubt, the majority inevitably backs the cabinet. Thus, the main vehicle by which to force the government to react in a positive way to audit reports is public opinion. If a specific audit report formulates a specific criticism, the government’s primary incentive to respond is its interest in preserving its public reputation.

The president of the Court of Audit is elected by parliament for the period of twelve years. This gives the president a certain degree of independence. At the moment of election by the National Council, he or she is the product of the majority. But as this figure cannot be reelected, and as parliamentary majorities often change in the course of 10 years, the president and his or her office in fact enjoy a significant degree of independence.

The elections of a new president for the court in 1992, 2004 and again in 2016 have underlined the possibility for opposition parties to impact these decisions due to the inability of coalition partners to unite behind a common candidate for the presidency.

One problem is the insufficient funding of the Austrian Court of Audit, while, at the same time, an increasing number of tasks are delegated to the court by the governing majority.

The Court of Audit demonstrated its independence once more when it asked critical questions concerning policies of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition. It may be seen as a compliment that, in 2019, the majority in parliament denied the Court of Audit direct access to party finances.

Does there exist an independent and effective ombuds office?

10
 9

There exists an effective and independent ombuds office.
 8
 7
 6


There exists an effective and independent ombuds office, but its advocacy role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


There exists an independent ombuds office, but its advocacy role is considerably limited.
 2
 1

There does not exist an effective and independent ombuds office.
Ombuds Office
10
The Austrian Ombudsman Board (Volksanwaltschaft) has three chairpersons, with one nominated by each of the three largest party groups in parliament. Parliament is required by law to select these nominees. This prevents the ombuds office from being run solely by persons handpicked by the ruling majority. The Ombudsman Board is a parliamentary instrument and reports regularly to the legislature. The chairpersons are elected for a period of six years. In contrast to the Audit Office (Rechnungshof), which had asked for more power to control the flow of political money, the Ombuds Office has stayed out of the turbulences of summer 2019. The structure and function of the Ombuds Office have not been disputed.

Is there an independent authority in place that effectively holds government offices accountable for handling issues of data protection and privacy?

10
 9

An independent and effective data protection authority exists.
 8
 7
 6


An independent and effective data protection authority exists, but its role is slightly limited.
 5
 4
 3


A data protection authority exists, but both its independence and effectiveness are strongly limited.
 2
 1

There is no effective and independent data protection office.
Data Protection Authority
9
Since 2013, an office for data protection has existed, which replaced the former Data Protection Committee. The office is headed by a chairperson appointed by the data protection council. The office and its chairperson are not dependent on the government – they are not obliged to follow any specific government directive. Over the last few years, the independence of the office has never seriously been questioned. In 2018, following the European Union’s GDPR taking effect, the data protection authority was restructured and scaled up. Currently, the data protection authority has about 40 staff members and additional assistants to carry out its tasks.
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