Erich von Siebenthal was a member of the Grand Council of Bern from 2002 to 2007, when he was elected to the National Council. He is an outspoken representative of mountain regions. GSTAADLIFE met him to discuss his political motivation, his party, and his family.
Interview by Markus Iseli
Mr von Siebenthal, what is the motivation for your engagement in politics?
In the first place I am a representative of mountain areas, which are very important to me. And if you have family, the future for the generations that follows is fundamental.
Which experiences from your childhood determined your close connection to your homeland?
I grew up in a good and intact family with five siblings. The political work of my father showed me early on that politics is crucial to preserve a home in this region.
You mention the political work of your father. Was there an event in your youth that particularly shaped your political development?
The time before elections were particularly interesting. The father’s involvement in elections is a very special experience for a child. I was always sharing the excitement.
Although you were a member of the Grand Council of Bern and have been one of the National Council, you haven’t had a mandate on a municipal level. Do you prefer forming the surrounding conditions for the development of your homeland rather than building it from within?
I joined the SVP when I was 20 and participated in various commissions of the commune. In hindsight, I appreciate the time I could spend at home after the birth of our three children because I wasn’t as politically involved as I am now. In 2001 the party suggested that I run for office in the Grand Council elections of 2002. So the first step into active politics was proposed by others. It has never been my aim and at first I doubted my abilities to perform the task. However, I knew from my father that one has to take responsibilities and then one thing led to the other.
What’s more important to you, to make politics as a representative of mountain areas or politics with a national concern?
Politics for mountain areas, national and international politics are all linked. A clear distinction can hardly be made. Sometimes it is quite difficult to realise what decisions will eventually benefit mountain regions.
Is there a mandate or project that’s closer to your heart than others?
In connection with tourism and cable cars this is true for the return of the petroleum tax for piste bashers, which will take effect for the first time this year. It was a very long process and I contributed enormously to this outcome with my lobbying and countless personal conversations with my peers. It was difficult to achieve a majority, for which I invested a lot of time and energy.
When you joined the SVP in 1978, did you fully identify with the party? Was your party affiliation an issue back then?
It was clear to me that the party of my father and his colleagues is the right thing. I never had to question this.
You say that your parents taught you openness and tolerance and that the Christian basis is a fundamental pillar in your life. Do you still feel at home in your party against the background of this as you did when you joined the party?
The Christian basis is very important to me and it is a call to serve my country. This is a central aspect. After joining the Grand Council I quickly realised that politics on a cantonal level is quite different. There isn’t the same harmony within a party as you find it on a communal level, but one grows into this. I learned to find my own path within the party and to stand in for my positions. After my election to the National Council, when the voting out of Christoph Blocher caused some commotion within the party, I was absolutely clear on my affiliation with the SVP. Depending on the issue at hand there is party-political pressure but I insist on my decisions, which is being respected by now.
On which issues does your opinion differ from the party line?
There are only a few cases. I voted in favour of the Energy Act because I am convinced that we need to take this route. Back in 2011 I was one of two SVP members to vote in favour of the nuclear power phase-out. But we can’t switch off our nuclear power plants and then import nuclear power from other countries. To fill this gap with nationally produced energy we need the energy strategy. There is a large potential for renewable resources in Switzerland. We should use them wisely.
You are a member of various organisation for the promotion and exploitation of the forest. What is your view on the potential of the forest for our region and in terms of energy policy?
We have various possibilities. In the construction of buildings, one focus area is isolation. Wood delivers very good results. Additionally, wood is never just waste. In the end it can be used for energy production, which is another area with a lot of potential.
You are alluding to wood chip heating systems, as they are in use for district heating in the Saanenland.
Yes, exactly. Today we still have a surplus of wood fuel in the Saanenland. Unfortunately the market for regional wood is not doing well. In particular wood for construction purposes is being imported ever more frequently because some building owners primarily aim for the lowest price.
So, should local would be used more extensively for the generation of energy?
That’s correct. However, wood cutting for the single purpose of wood fuel is never profitable. The wood must be sold for construction purposes in the first place. The wood of lower quality and branches can then be used to produce wood chips for heating. The potential of this natural and renewable product should be exploited more profusely across Switzerland.
How can this be achieved?
In parliament I supported the idea that public construction projects are obliged to use Swiss wood. Unfortunately, the necessary majorities could not be achieved. Another opportunity lies in building awareness amongst future house owners. In the various organisations of which I am a member we try to show what difference it makes to use Swiss wood or even local wood – in ecological terms on the one hand and in terms of regional employment on the other hand. This is a message for the readers who intend to build a house sometime in the future.
What about the cultivation of the forest, can you optimise this?
Due to the topography in the Saanenland cableway extraction is the only possibility to get the logs out of the forest. On top of this, the forest is split up into many single lots with various owners. This combination makes an increase in efficiency rather challenging.
How do you consider the current state of energy generation from wood fuel in the Saanenland?
I was involved in the planning of the wood chip heating plant in Saanen. It was an exciting project and it still is pointing the way. I hope the plant in Schönried, which is getting a bit long in the tooth, can be renewed and expanded. Gsteig and Lauenen also have one and, last but not least, I hope that private house owners consider the option of wood chip or wood pellet systems when renovations are due or when they build a new chalet. This, too, is a call to the readers to find out about options for private houses. Technically, even electricity can be produced with wood. The residual heat remains a challenge, though.
Let’s return to your families. First the political family: the SVP is often seen as a polemical and controversial party from the outside. What do you tell people who see your party in this light?
The basic values of my party are neutrality, freedom, low taxes, and the autonomy of decision. With ongoing globalisation these values are strained and that’s what we point out. The same is true for private property, for which taxes and charges are rising. In order to receive visibility when discussing these issues, it is unfortunately necessary to have a harsh appearance at times. Opposite parties do the same. I have no differences with the values of my party but sometimes with the manner of communication. Though the media contribute their share as well.
In various countries the political landscape witnessed a slide to the right. On the one hand, national values and economical isolation are on the rise and on the other hand international alliances are under close scrutiny. Do you welcome these developments, given that they roughly match with the values you just pointed out?
It is crucial that these developments don’t turn into extremes. Left-wing politics, which dominated for a long time, sees a countermovement. I welcome this, reason and measure are key, though.
Are your three children interested in politics as well?
Politics shouldn’t be dominant in a family but of course they’ve seen a lot of it and they do show interest.
Do you have controversial political discussion within the family?
My family questions certain things, which I appreciate. This happens in particular when they get something from the media, which shows me that media coverage can be misleading. They often understand such points better after I explain the background and my view of a certain point or decision.
How do you divide the time between your family, work, and your political life?
You can’t fully control this. I am grateful that my children were almost adults when I was elected to the National Council. Otherwise you miss out on too much. It’s a daily challenge to make sure that my wife doesn’t miss out and that we have time together. It is important we take time for each other, which we preferably spend outside.