In April 1980, all four of Switzerland's television channels broadcast a very important program from 1pm and 8pm almost every day. The show featured discussion of whether the public should continue to pay a "church tax." The discussion of this issue had already gone on for two years with the purpose of letting all citizens express their opinions to their heart's content.
For many years, the people of Switzerland had paid a "church tax." Many European countries -- including Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian countries -- collect this tax, and the revenue is used by the church for spreading the gospel. But in the 1960s dissenting opinions about this tax began to surface because some people neither go to church nor believe in Jesus Christ. So why should they pay such a tax?
Thus reaction followed reaction and discussion followed discussion until the government finally decided to put the matter to a national referendum. The result of the vote in 1970 was that an overwhelming 78 percent of the Swiss people supported continued collection of the church tax, but the attached condition was that the issue should be discussed all over again after 10 years.
The Swiss government's method of preparing for the referendum was to invite representatives from all walks of life -- university professors, workers, farmers and others -- to discuss the matter on television over a period of two years. The public was also greatly concerned about the matter because it related to practical questions of spending and taxation.
The second referendum passed in April 1980, but a friend told me that public support for the tax dropped by 6 percent. Moreover, the condition was still attached that the matter be discussed 10 years later. In other words, this case has already been discussed and put to a poplar vote three times at intervals of a decade.
The Swiss would never relegate the deciaion-making of this kind of matter to parliament. They believe that at times lawmakers are unable to fully reflect popular opinion. Instead, they often represent the interests and ideas of an elite minority. Thus, all important affairs of state are settled through national referendums.
For example, they may hold a referendum to decide whether schools must hold classes in religion. They believe this is an important matter affecting the spiritual development of the next generation and not something that can be decided by lawmakers in parliament alone. Their lawmakers are also very humble and know that their own opinions sometimes cannot reflect public opinion accurately. Although they do their best to fulfill their professional responsibilities by making inquiries and polling the people of their constituencies, they still respect the opinions of the entire citizenry.
The people also clearly recognize the importance of holding referendums on major issues. They don't demand referendums lightly and instead reserve the privilege for issues relating to the national interest and the people's welfare.
In the last few years, some people in Taiwan have consistently pushed for referendums to decide the fate of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, the question of whether to enter the UN, and the recent hot issue of Taipei's bid to gain a place in the World Health Organization (WHO). These voices have become louder by the day and are stirring up larger and larger waves.