On Sunday, a referendum proposal to re-introduce strict quotas for immigration from European Union countries was passed in Switzerland by a tiny majority of 50.3% of voters. The Swiss constitution provides no recourse for appeal, and the Swiss Government will now need to renegotiate its agreement with the EU on the free movement of labour, which has been in place since 2007.
Care should be taken drawing lessons from the Swiss vote – Switzerland has a unique form of 'direct democracy' (only 100,000 signatures are required to force a referendum), and many of the most significant ramifications of the result of the referendum will result from Switzerland's unique 'insider-outsider' relationship with the EU.
Still, I would suggest there may be some lessons to learn for Australia, as the new government seeks to exert firmer control over immigration.
First, guard against complacency. The Swiss Government woke up far too late to the possibility that the referendum might be lost. After all, Switzerland is well accustomed to migration (almost 20% of the population are EU citizens). And unemployment – for which migrants are all too often scapegoats – is negligible in Switzerland at about 3%. Surely there was nothing to complain about?
The lesson for Canberra: don't assume that your considerable successes thus far in managing migration are understood or appreciated by the public, especially if you won't communicate the results.
Second, appreciate the gap between the polity and the public. It is true that the Swiss are used to migration and enjoy almost full employment. What they apparently resent is increasing house prices, crowded public transport and longer traffic jams, and the new experience of not being able to take for granted being front of the queue for the best education and healthcare. It's easy to celebrate globalisation in Geneva or Sydney, but less so in a pristine Swiss Alpine village or remote Australian mining town.
It would also be a mistake to assume that the public can discern between migrants. Launch an offensive on irregular migrants or asylum seekers and you risk turning the public against other migrants too.
Third, build alliances with business. In recent weeks in Switzerland, the business (and education) sector has been far more vociferous than the Government in opposing the referendum, arguing that a 'yes' vote will stymie the supply of talent and undermine competitiveness. To no avail.
While governments around the world, including in Switzerland and Australia, have made efforts to consult with civil society, there are still barriers to genuine engagement with the business sector. This is a mistake – business can make the case of migration much more convincingly than government.
Fourth, understand that probably in no other area of public policy does domestic politics project on international reputation more than immigration. For Switzerland, a renegotiation of the free movement of labour agreement opens up for negotiation all other agreements with the EU: trade, finance, security. Imagine being a Swiss diplomat at the EU in Brussels today...or an Australian diplomat trying to sell the Papua New Guinea deal to the UN in Geneva or New York.
Fifth, aggressively preserve the space for objective debate. In my experience in Switzerland and Australia, this space is shrinking quickly. If we can't engage in an honest debate about migration – what is good and what is bad, when it works and when it doesn't – don't be surprised if the public follows the media agenda or responds to the most effective scare tactics.
As an EU citizen living in Switzerland, I await to see what my future here holds. Unfortunately, I'm probably too old and unskilled to emigrate to Australia.
Photo by Flickr user stormwarning.