In recent months I’ve devoted a number of blog articles to the subject of new political parties in Austria. One in particular, NEOS, is staking a claim for the attention of Social Liberals (such as myself) and other progressive. I‘ve given my own views, as well as talked about what the papers and others have said on the subject. Now I’m pleased include a series of guest posts by Veit Dengler from NEOS on why he believes Social Liberals and other progressives should be giving them support.
COMING HOME – Why Liberals in Austria now have a place to go.
The history of liberalism in Austria is long and dark. Like many Catholic and Orthodox countries in Europe, organized labor, Christian parties and the extreme parties of the right and the left dominated the political scene, and still do. Liberal parties tend to be small and only sometime minor coalition partners.
In Austria, since 1945, we only had one liberal party, the Liberale Forum (LIF) in parliament, for a few years, in the 1990s. It never was in government.
The conservative ÖVP and the social democratic SPÖ have their liberal wings, in waxing and waning strength, with an apogee in the 1970s for social liberalism and the late 1980s for economic liberalism. The Greens have an urban liberal current. But in none of these parties was the liberal wing ever close to being dominant.
This is reflected in policy. The government is intrusive to a fault, yet intransparent and unaccountable. We do not have a freedom of information act. Appointments in state-controlled entities are routinely based on party clientelism, resulting in incompetent management that has done lasting damage to such former stars as Austrian Airlines, the Vienna Airport or A1 Telekom Austria.
We have restrictive shop opening hour laws which make it hard to shop for anything, even groceries, if you hold a normal 9-5 job and have a family-filled Saturday. Our competition authority is a third of the size of Denmark’s. Denmark!
Church and state are not very separate; we still have at-fault divorce laws, and recruiters’ routinely state age or gender preferences. There is no gay marriage, or adoption rights for homosexual couples. Anti-foreigner rhetoric is common, not just with the far-right FPÖ.
Public discourse in Austria is that of a deeply conservative (with a small c) nanny state. Austria is your aunt Mildred, if Mildred thought it right to tax away half of your income but had no idea how to spend it well. We have one of the most expensive education systems in the EU, but rank 25th out of 27in reading comprehension for 15-year olds. Health costs health outcomes tell a similar story: the healthy life expectancy is under 59 years for men, one of the lowest in the EU.
If I am unfair to lovely Aunt Mildred, think of the Austrian state as a British Leyland car – badly designed, expensive to maintain, terribly inefficient in what it is supposed to do and with the all-too-real worry that it will break down in the future. What is missing is a strong liberal voice to fix that car.
But there is generational change in the air. The current 16-59 year olds are the Generation Double Jeopardy: we are paying the bills for the current generous social and health benefits, even though we ourselves will receive much less. This isn’t alarmist, it’s just math given the public debt and the demographic change linked to low birth rates and increasing longevity. The Double Jeopardists know it.
And now there is a new party that represents a New Liberalism in Austria, for the Generation Double Jeopardy specifically. NEOS is new not only in that it has a sensible, pragmatic program combining economic and social liberalism. It is also new in its approach. Instead of the old confrontational style of politics in Austria, we look for good ideas wherever they come from. The Austrian Greens are sensible in much of their social policies. The SPÖ have shown in the past that they are willing to change their policies – most notably on European integration and, more recently, on the military draft. And perhaps in a more constructive environment, the ÖVP could follow through on sensible reform of the tax code. We believe in working with all of them to develop evidence-based policies that will put the country’s finances on a sound long-term footing and address the right priorities, particularly in education. Last not least we are committed Europeans and want more Europe, not less.
Realistically, though, the SPÖ and the ÖVP have lost their ability to drive reform, and the Greens are incapable of rejuvenating themselves, as evidenced by the failure of their Green Business (Grüne Wirtschaft) wing to score any winnable seats in their recent candidate selection.
That is why more and more liberals are looking for a new home, which NEOS can provide. Truth is, looking at the choices available in the next general elections, the only way for liberals to drive the change they are looking for, is to vote NEOS into parliament with enough seats to become a coalition partner and shape policies. This way, we can break out of the sterile debate of the last decades and launch innovative and progressive reforms.
We are now working on an alliance to bring the remaining LIF onto the NEOS platform. Over the next months, you will hear from more and more people among Greens, the ÖVP and the SPÖ who will join our bandwagon. This will be an historic opportunity to unite all the major constituencies of the center.
Because without NEOS, we won’t get the change we need.
Veit Dengler ( @veitdengler )