New alternatives in Austria
An acquaintance from Germany asked me to provide a comment concerning the Austrian anti-smoker’s petition. We first met online in the noughties, when we both were somehow surprised, flabbergasted, as well as horrified about the strictly choreographed wave of hatred and destructiveness towards smokers, that had come over from the USA to us in Europe. Mostly in agreement, we were sure that the aggressiveness against smokers would cause a fragmentation of society and the destruction of the coexistence we had been used to, and that this would become a longer lasting development. We should be proved right.
Indeed, a lot has happened since, and the new house of Europe has been built with on completely new building stones. And the most important building stone of this transformation is the denial of alternatives (“TINA“). In all areas of politics, there is no either-or anymore, and much less the possibility of compromise. The new way of politics can only march in one direction. And this is an experience, that smokers were about to make very soon, because it lead to the second building stone: The relocation of political controversy from the sphere of matter-of-fact, on-topic politics into the sphere of creed. And the sphere of creed does not know alternatives either: There can only be one attitude: The right one.
If you are part of the camp that believes in alternatives, in letting the other side having their say, in maybe meeting in the middle for a compromise, in keeping politics free of all that quasi-religious moralizing, lecturing, reeducating and redeeming, then you no longer “belong“, because these positions suffice to make you the “enemy“. Debates about alternatives are only lead with the political opponent, not with the moral enemy, who has no right to be heard, because – in the new political sphere – he does not even have a right to exist.
And the first one to experience this new quality of hostility, whom no legal standing was conceded, who was regarded as so morally inferior, that nobody would talk to him – only about him, who was not entitled to compassion, sympathy or solidarity by anyone, was the smoker. In order to have his habit banned, the state of law was neutralized for the first time, property rights and customary laws were broken, and it became politically correct to berate and discriminate smokers, and even the most barefaced lie about tobacco and smoking was regarded as morally justified and spread with enthusiasm and zeal. Within a few years, the concept of the total smoking ban invaded all areas of social coexistence. The EU as supreme political authority with its claim of total forcible-coordination of its member states did not hesitate to attend to this matter. Lobbyists did a good job of it, and even Austria followed this forced trend, albeit with little enthusiasm and only minimal urge to take a leading role in the fight against smoking and tobacco. In times of frail majorities in the parliaments, the fear of antagonizing electors was too great.
Since 1995 “Protection of Nonsmokers “ (Vranitzky Cabinet, SPÖ-ÖVP) has become an issue, originally without hate and aggression, declared as an effort to create refuges for non-smokers, where they are not affected by cigarette smoke. This meant it was left to the people concerned – all of them adult citizens – to shape their lives and surroundings according to their preferences – with or without smoke. This extent of liberality hurt the regulation-crazed officials in Brussels, who in 2009 drafted a reprimand, demanding a more enthusiastic and dedicated implementation of the „WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control“ [sic! Please note the change of heart since the times of “Protection of Nonsmokers“] from 2003.
Ten years ago, the Government (SPÖ-ÖVP cabinet) found an “interim solution“: Owners of single room bars smaller than 50 square meters could decide, whether they wanted to run a smoking or a non-smoking establishment; bigger premises, whose owners wanted to allow smoking, had to have a separate smokers’ room. For the establishment of these partitions, a transition period was granted until 2010.
In 2015, under chancellor Faymann (again a SPÖ-ÖVP cabinet), the lobbyists obviously were no longer to be stalled, and finally a total smoking ban was passed that should come into effect in May of 2018. However, Faymann would no longer be Chancellor on this date, not even his successor Kern would be in office. On December 18, 2017 a new Cabinet under Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP-FPÖ) was sworn in. Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, an avowed smoker himself, has required the government policy statement to contain a repeal of the total smoking ban. “The Party of the Ordinary People“, as FPÖ likes to call themselves, had advocated this demand in its election campaign. The party, which is located in the politically right spectrum and of a strongly statist character, has been considered non-conducive to coalition building for many years. It had been a recurring ritual for all politicians on a federal and state level, to declare to be “open“ for all coalitions, except one with the FPÖ, which always has stood out for its criticism of the EU. Kurz himself had been selected top candidate only after a small “Revolution“ within his party, they even changed the party color from black to turquoise. This government has been a breach of many unwritten “rules“.
The Green Party, which was not even elected into the National Council, and the SPÖ, which – after several decades of chancellorship – suddenly had do politics in the opposition, found themselves confronted with disaster, and had to regroup for a start. When the government policy statement was presented, the idea arose, that it would be possible to topple the new government by instrumentalizing a topic that hopefully had the potential to mobilize the masses. This was undoubtedly the reason for the popular petition “Don’t Smoke“ to be launched. In order to initiate this popular petition, two “unpolitical“ groups were sent ahead: The Austrian Medical Chamber and Austrian Cancer Aid. The former is the professional association of physicians, the latter a public charity concerned with Cancer Prevention and Early Detection of Disease. The assumption of a certain closeness of these two organizations to the pharmaceutical industry would not be totally arbitrary.
For all those not very conversant with the Austrian Constitution, I would like to briefly explain the mechanism of a public petition: Every citizen can file a legislative proposal as “Public petition“ at the Ministry of Interior. If he can achieve 8401 signatures during the opening procedure, a public petition is authorized, and the citizens have one week to sign the petition either at the local administrative authorities or online. If the proposal receives more than 100,000 signatures, the National Council has to discuss the proposal in question. It can either adopt the proposal as law or reject it by majority vote. In the course of political discussions respectively during the election campaign, Kurz as well as Strache have called for a strengthening of direct democracy in Austria – a well known and frequently used empty topos in Austrian domestic policy, especially by the Greens. In this context, the number of 100,000 signatures was mentioned as potential threshold for future (then obligatory) public petitions. As this would require a constitutional amendment, perhaps in connection with a public petition, the whole chapter may be regarded as illusory.
As soon as the introductory procedure had begun, all government opponents started to hyperventilate, as well as most mainstream media, which are almost without exception against the current cabinet. All allegations, prejudices and lies concerning tobacco, smoking and smokers were brought together and connected with criticism of the government. Day after day, the horror news came thick and fast. Within the first two days of the introductory procedure the Ministry of the Interior’s server broke down several times, the 100,000-mark was surpassed within 72 hours. Is has not happened often, that the „magical“ number of 100,000 could already be reached during the introductory procedure. The initiators and sympathizers were crowing, as they saw the petition as a vote over the government coalition that had been working for just a few months. 591.146 people had supported the petition. From the 1st to the 8th of October 2018 the actual registration process was performed. Meanwhile the government had announced, that a referendum would be conducted, if the number of signatories surpassed 900,000. 881,569 Austrians signed the petition, i.e.
13,82 % of the eligible voters. In the end, the disappointment was massive: There was no notable growth of support in comparison to the introductory procedure. The target audience for a general smoking ban was exhausted, the idea of triumphing in a referendum against the government was dead.
Especially great was the disappointment of the media, as the journalists once more had to recognize that their power of influencing society has definitive limits. The “outrage“ about the fact, that there would be no referendum, although the 100,000-mark had been surpassed, continued for a few days, but then calm and normality returned. Analyses of the numbers of supporters allow a clear picture: There was more support in areas with a generally strong percentage of Green voters, few support in the countryside and in the formerly Red and nowadays Blue core electorate areas. We can only wonder: Was this really a vote about the government coalition, which did not find more sympathizers, or is the endorsement of smoking bans seamlessly congruent with a certain mindset?
In conclusion, Austria is no longer governed by a lack of alternatives, not in a general context, and not in issues of detail. Hysterical conviction politics can be overcome, within less than a year in office, the government has broken with old patterns of thinking several times and dared to make its own decisions. Without doubt, we, the smokers in Austria are the beneficiaries of this development, which maybe could be replicated elsewhere.
Congratulations on a job well done. Hoping that it will sweep across the rest of european continent asap.