The Austrian Parliament
Parliament is the very heart of any democratic system. But what actually happens in Parliament? How does our political system work? A crash course on democracy in Austria.
In the Parliament, the interests of the greatest possible number of citizens should be represented. They all can vote for individuals who represent them. In Austria, Parliament has two chambers – the National Council (Nationalrat) and Federal Council (Bundesrat).
How the National Council Is Formed
The 183 Members of the National Council are elected by all citizens entitled to vote, every five years or sometimes sooner. Voters have to decide in favour of one single party. The National Council is then formed on the basis of what is called the party-list system of proportional representation. The seats – often referred to as “mandates” – are assigned to the political parties under very strict rules; the key is the percentage share of total votes they have obtained. This does not mean, however, that all parties obtain seats in the National Council. They are entitled to seats only if they have received at least four percent of the votes in all of Austria or one direct or basic mandate in one of the constituencies. This is to guarantee that only parties of some (nation-wide) importance have seats in the National Council. The advantage is that majorities are more easily formed if there are not too many small parties in Parliament. The disadvantage of this “four-percent hurdle“ is that some political interests are not represented in the National Council.
How the Federal Council Is Formed
The second chamber of Parliament, the Federal Council, is not directly elected by popular vote. Its composition depends on the relative strength of the parties in the Diets of the Federal Provinces, whose interests it represents at the legislative level. The Members of the Federal Council therefore remain in office throughout the legislative period of the Diet by which they have been delegated. This means that the composition of the Federal Council changes after each Provincial Diet election, and the Federal Council has no definitive legislative period in its own right. How many Members of the Federal Council a Federal Province can delegate to it depends on its population. The most populous Province is entitled to a maximum of twelve, the smallest to a minimum of three Members. The reassessment of the number of Members depends of the population register (formerly the census), so that the total number of Members of the Federal Council can change time and again. According to the latest assessment, dating from 2017, the federal states send the following numbers of deputies to the Federal Council:
- Lower Austria - 12 deputies
- Vienna - 11 deputies
- Upper Austria - 10 deputies
- Styria - 9 deputies
- Tyrol - 5 deputies
- Carinthia - 4 deputies
- Salzburg - 4 deputies
- Vorarlberg - 3 deputies
- Burgenland - 3 deputies
The Tasks of Parliament
Parliament has, first and foremost, the task of examining bills and passing them into laws, and of checking the work of the Government, to mention only its most important duties. But note that the tasks of parliaments may vary from country to country. And even in Austria, these tasks have changed in the course of time.
Parliament passes the laws that govern Austria. The law-making bodies are the National Council, the Federal Council and – in the federal provinces – the Provincial Diets. The government, the public authorities and the courts have to obey these laws in the same way as all citizens do.
Parliament watches closely what the government does: the Chancellor, Ministers and State Secretaries have to justify themselves for what they – and the authorities under them – do. The idea is not only that Parliament exercises control over them – discussing the matters in question may also give rise to improvements and reforms.
Representation and the Public
"Parler" Means "to Speak": The word, parliament, is derived from French "parler“, which means "to speak“. Public debate, exchanging arguments, and even political disputes governed by clearly defined rules are the core business of any parliament.
Protests, Rolling One’s Eyes, Heckling: Nothing but Play-Acting?: It is before Parliament that politicians have to justify themselves and that the reasons for political decisions are brought out into the open. Protests, members rolling their eyes or heckling the speakers: plenaries may sometimes remind spectators of actors playing out a scene, but all this is part of the game and adds new touches to the work achieved in the committees: It is in the committees that politicians discuss law texts in detail before they go to the National Council plenary to demonstrate to the public what they stand for – a process that is gaining more and more importance in today’s media society.
Everything for the Public: Since the democratic system requires openness and transparency in all respects, all documents and the minutes of all National Council and Federal Council sittings are published, those interested may observe sittings of the National and Federal Councils from the public gallery, and many parliamentary debates are also transmitted by television. Transparency is an important prerequisite for a functioning democracy and for making sure that voters in political elections are well informed when they decide for whom to vote.
Participation in the Administration
Administering the laws of a state is in principle the task of the government. However, the portent of some decisions is so great that the government can only take them jointly with the Main Committee of the National Council – one such matter, for example, is the decision to dispatch Austrian soldiers to participate in international peace-keeping operations.
Participation in the European Union
Parliament is informed of all projects within the scope of the European Union, and Members of Parliament deliberate on all EU projects jointly with the member of government in charge of the matter in hand and prepare the position to be taken by Austria. The government then defends this position in the competent EU bodies. In this respect, Parliament has the right to impose factual conditions on the government. Since 2009 the Parliaments of the EU countries have, under the Lisbon Treaty, been given the right to directly participate to a certain extent in the EU legislative process.
What should Austria spend money on? And who should pay how much in taxes? The national budget is always an important issue for Parliament. It is prepared by the Ministry of Finance and the government presents it to the National Council for decision. The budget debate gives ample opportunity for discussing the objectives and focal points to be pursued by the policy-makers. At the same time the government has to inform Parliament how the money is to be used and what it wants to achieve with its expenditures. Accordingly, the National Council will discuss the objectives and focal policy issues in the course of the budget debate and when scrutinising the current reports submitted by the Ministry of Finance. Since 2012 the National Council has also enjoyed far-reaching rights of participation regarding fiscal policy measures at European level.
Parliaments also have the task of electing other important office-holders representing the State. In Austria, Parliament elects, for instance, the President of the Court of Audit and the members of the Ombudsman’s Office. Both the National Council and the Federal Council may make proposals for the appointment of the members of the Constitutional Court and have a say in nominating Austrian members of EU institutions.