The Government

The Government comprises the Federal Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor and the Ministers. It heads, determines and supervises political life internally and externally. Jointly with the Federal President it forms the head of the federal administration. 

Responsibilities of the Government

The Government comprises the Federal Chancellor, the Vice Chancellor and the Ministers. Some Ministers are supported in their work by State Secretaries, who are, however, not members of the Government. Along with the Federal President, the Federal Government heads the federal administration, i. e. it is responsible for matters that affect the whole of Austria, such as education, police, defence and economic policy.

When it takes office, the Federal Government presents a government programme, which it will endeavour to implement during its term of office. Many of the projected measures require legislation, and the Government needs to cooperate closely with the National and Federal Councils in implementing them. Passing laws is the task of Parliament, not the Government. So the Federal Government needs majorities in the National Council who support them and vote for them, possibly with amendments.

Not Elected by the People

In Austria the Government is appointed by the Federal President. Many people believe wrongly that the Government is elected. This impression is due to the fact that the political parties during election campaigns preceding National Council elections tend to present their top candidates as possible Heads of Government and tell the voters that they want to form the Government. And as often as not these candidates will actually be appointed to positions in the Government.

Stability for governing

The Federal Government or individual members of the same may at any time be forced by a vote of no confidence in the National Council to step down (political responsibility of Ministers). This is a prime principle of the parliamentary system.

A Government is only stable as long as it has the support of a majority of Members of the National Council, or – in the case of a minority government – is at least tolerated by the majority, whose support it has to seek time and again.

The parliamentary majority is strongly interconnected with the Federal Government. This is why government offices are often filled with top officials of the parties that form the parliamentary majority.

The National Council members representing the parties in government therefore make it their major task to support the Government and solicit the support of members of the opposition parties for the Government’s projects.

Changes in Government

The Federal Government is appointed by the Federal President. The latter is not under the obligation to install a new Government immediately after National Council elections. It is customary, however, that the old Government resigns and is entrusted by the Federal President with continuing in office until a new government is appointed.

Members of the Federal Government may at the same time be Members of the National Council, but most of them relinquish their seats when they accept a government position.

Complimentary: Parliament and Government

The parliamentary system of government has resulted in a new form of division of power between Parliament and the Government. Parliament and the Government no longer oppose each other, as was the case during the Monarchy, when the government was only responsible to the Emperor.

To this day there are, however, such systems – for instance in France or in the United States of America, where a strong President confronts Parliament.

In Austria, we now find the Government and the parliamentary majority on one side and the Opposition on the other. That is to say that, strictly speaking, the separation of powers of Parliament and the Government no longer exists in the classical sense.

Control from the other side

Particularly as far as legislation is concerned, the parliamentary system of government relies on a close cooperation between the National Council, especially the majority parties, and the Federal Government. Most of the bills deliberated in the National Council are tabled by the Government.

This makes legislation the central task of the government parties in Parliament, while the supervision of the implementation of the laws – originally the task of Parliament as a whole – is now for the main part exercised by the Opposition.

Government and Legislation

The majority of the laws passed by the National Council are based on bills initiated by the Government – on the one hand, because the Government has a programme to enforce.

On the other hand, it is under the obligation to prepare bills concerning other matters, since Austria has committed herself to implementing European or international requirements (EU law) – or because the Constitutional Court has set a law aside so that new legislation has become necessary.

Because of the intimate connection between the Government and the parliamentary majority the Government can justly assume that its bills will in all likelihood have majority support in the National Council, though the latter will frequently insist on amendments to be made.

Quite frequently, the National Council passes resolutions that encourage the Government to prepare a bill on such and such matters. Such proposals may also originate from the opposition parties. Proposals of this nature are made, above all, because preparing a bill mostly calls for the detailed expertise lodged in the competent ministries.

Sometimes a bill promoted by the Government is introduced in the form of a Private Member’s Bill. This is above all done if there is interest in speeding up the legislative process, since private members’ bills are not subject to time-consuming scrutiny by outside experts.

Committees mirroring Ministries

The committees of the National Council are the counterparts of the fields of competence of the various Ministries. Since the latter often combine a variety of fields, there are more parliamentary committees than ministries. In early 2010 the National Council had approximately thirty committees entrusted with the preliminary deliberation of items of business.

The Parliamentary Group chairpersons of the parties in government take part in the preliminary discussions in preparation of meetings of the Council of Ministers and in this way have a share in the Federal Government’s decision-making process. In turn, the Members of Government take part in the meetings of the Parliamentary Groups of their respective parties, where the voting behaviour of the Group members is coordinated. This means that the members of the Government can also bring their influence to bear on the attitude adopted by their Parliamentary Group.

Government in control

In theory, exercising control over the Government is a task of Parliament; in practice, however, it is first and foremost the Opposition that controls and criticises the Government, since the Government Members are mostly members of the parties that have a parliamentary majority in the National Council.

In Parliament, it is above all the Opposition parties that occasionally take it upon themselves to attack the Government sharply. In so doing, they must confine themselves to the instruments of control that are at the disposal of every individual Member of Parliament and minority groups of Members.

Parliament grants no special rights to the Opposition, which can, however, make use of all the rights that every and any parliamentary minority enjoys.

Minority and Majority control rights

These rights, which are also enjoyed by a minority, include the right

  • to ask questions (oral questions, questions in writing, “urgent questions” and ”matters of topical interest“)
  • to call for a short debate on the answer received to a question
  • to call for a special investigation by the Court of Audit
  • to instruct the Permanent Sub-Committee of the Court of Audit Committee to embark on an investigation
  • to challenge a Federal Law by invoking the Constitutional Court

Individual Members or a minority of Members can only table motions demanding their application, but it is the majority that decides whether or not to resort to such measures as:

  • passing a resolution
  • calling for the attendance of a particular Government member
  • setting up an investigating committee
  • adopting a vote of no confidence

A majority decision of the National Council is also required for impeaching a Government member before the Constitutional Court.

The Government Bench

Members of the Federal Government have the right to take part in the deliberations of the National Council and its committees. They may take the floor at any time to deliver a statement to the plenary. They have their seats on a special raised platform immediately behind the speakers’ rostrum in the Plenary Hall and are clearly visible on TV during broadcasts from the National Council. When addressing the National Council, Government Members speak from their seats, not from the speaker’s rostrum.

Members of the National and Federal Councils have the right to call for a majority decision to demand the presence of members of the Federal Government. Sometimes it is an effective way for the Opposition to catch public attention to demand the presence of a Minister or the Federal Chancellor. 

Usually the competent Government Member is present when the National or Federal Council deliberates on a matter within his/her competence.

A newly formed Federal Government has to appear before the National Council to be introduced. On this occasion the Federal Chancellor will present his/her government’s programme in a Government Declaration. It is also customary for newly appointed individual members of the Government to present themselves to the National and Federal Councils.

The Federal Government may, for its part, demand that the National Council hold an extraordinary sitting or meeting. This may be the case when urgent matters come up during parliamentary recess.

Federal Government and Federal Council

The relations between the Federal Council and the Federal Government are vastly different from the National Council’s relations with the Federal Government.

Like the National Council, the Federal Council has the right to ask questions (oral questions, questions in writing, “urgent questions” and ”matters of topical interest“) and can address resolutions to the Federal Government, but it cannot set up investigating committees and has no rights of control in the field of the budget and its management.

Most importantly, the Federal Council cannot pass a vote of no confidence against the Federal Government or individual members to cause them to resign.

While the Federal Government cannot effectively govern against a hostile majority in the National Council, it can do so if the majority in the Federal Council is opposed to its policy. Actually, this situation arises time and again. Majorities in the Federal Council can change whenever Provincial Diets are newly elected.

If the majorities in the Federal Council do not coincide with the majority in the National Council, objections against National Council decisions may be raised more frequently in the Federal Council, in which case the National Council can overrule them.