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“Sick of Ruddmentum? Upend the Constitution!”

Ever since 1999, the Australian republican movement has been quiet. Suitably chastened after being comprehensively out-campaigned, there is some resignation that we will not see a renewed fervour for genuine independence from the Mother Country until Her Maj shuffles off her mortal coil.

Remember this?The issue does, however, continue to percolate, just beneath the surface of the national discourse. In particular, the debate that has been left on simmer is not whether or not Australia should set out on its own, but the manner in which we should do it.

Those old enough would remember that the key reason that the push for Republicanism was foiled not by some deep-seated desire among the public to retain a Monarchy for which it retains no affection other than a bizarre ‘quaint-celebrity’ attachment (kind of like how everyone digs Betty White at the moment). No, it was because Tony Abbott and the Monarchists ruthlessly (and more than a little disingenuously) hammered the line that a true Republic should elect its own President, rather than have one appointed by Parliament.

Enamoured as we seem to be by American notions of political freedom, Australia ate it up, and rejected the model proposed by the Constitutional Convention.

This week, the issue bubbled up on New Matilda, in the form of a piece by Dr Aron Paul entitled “A Plan to End the Leadership Brawl”.

In effect, Dr Paul’s suggestion was that the simplest way to remove the constant speculation around who will lead the government/opposition/whatever, is to take it out of the hands of the politicians and put it in the hands of the people, and “directly elect the Prime Minister”.

Now, I recognise that Dr Paul has taught politics at university, and thus is more than qualified to opine on this matter, but it seems to be quite possibly the craziest idea ever put forward. Anywhere. By anyone.

There was a very good reason that the Constitutional Convention way back in the late ‘90s recommended a model of republicanism wherein Parliament appointed the President. It’s because our constitution is pretty bloody good as it stands. It was called the ‘minimalist’ model for a good reason.

Australia, compared to a great many other countries, has remarkably stable, efficient government. The executive resides in Parliament, thus giving the ruling party sufficient power to enact its legislative agenda, the greatest notion of Westminster politics. Meanwhile, we have an extant constitution (there is actually no real UK constitution), and have codified a great deal of the relevant laws to ensure stable government and governance.

Our politics is boring, and while this means we lack the sparks of American politics, and our journalists have to go hunting for leadership speculation, it means that it works well. We don’t have senate hearings over High Court nominees. We don’t have partisan electoral commissions creating extraordinary gerrymandering. We have clearly delineated separation of powers.

Creating another elected mandate would be a nightmare for our politics. The Governor General, at present, you must remember, has the ability to sack the government. Right now, it is an accepted ceremonial position, appointed uncontroversially by the Prime Minister. Imagine a Governor General (or “President”, or “Chief Executive”, or whatever), with a mandate over the votes of a plurality – or even majority – of the public, who decides that the present minority government is not operating to her liking, and calling an election. That’s what would happen, without a major constitutional overhaul. A constitution, mind, which works quite well as it is.

Any directly-elected leader would require a drastic change to the constitution, to ensure that we don’t have someone at the top with unfettered power (the Prime Minister does not even feature in our constitution, so who would say what they could or could not do?). But that would involve re-working a perfectly functional political system, the envy of the world.

Dr Paul’s position is, if I may paraphrase, “are you sick of stupid stories about Kevin Rudd? Well why don’t we completely upend the separation of powers and rewrite the constitution?”

This from an academic. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Ed Butler is a recovering economist and novelty blogger, of the never-lamented Things Bogans Like. On about step seven of the requisite 12, he now works in communications and environmental advocacy. The republican referendum was about the only political campaign he ever joined, and his unfiltered ramblings can be found @fakeedbutler.

About Ed Butler

Once, I wrote things for money. Now, I do not. So I have thoughts, and think them here.

9 comments on ““Sick of Ruddmentum? Upend the Constitution!”

  1. intuitivereason
    February 28, 2013

    Yes, that would be daft. I think even changing the name from Governor General to President is silly; it automatically engenders thoughts of the US arrangement, which would be counterproductive.

    The biggest problem for Republicans is that there is no functional reason to change.

    Just like the current push to get Local government recognised in the Federal constitution. As if the federal government hasn’t gathered more authority to itself than intended as it is.

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  2. MK
    February 28, 2013

    Just proof that any reliance on the authority of academics needs to be tempered with an awareness that they could just be highly educated madpeople.

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  3. Noely (@YaThinkN)
    February 28, 2013

    Would be interesting if someone could come up with a realistic Republic system that could work. Most seem to be fine with us becoming a republic, just so suss of politicians that we are suss on any systems of actually running that republic, sort of like the better the devil you know. It is a shame, as a kid I always thought we would be a country in our right when ‘I grew up’, mid 40′s now & not even on the horizon :(

    Hopefully one day some smart cookies, will come up with a palatable system to work with.

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  4. John Mainard Kaynes
    February 28, 2013

    I’m really not sure where to start. Or where the above analysis fits on the crazy scale but I think it’s right up there.


    You are confusing a debate about voting in the GovenorGeneral/“President”/“Chief Executive”, or whatever) with the potential of voting in a Prime Minister/Presidents

    The Govenor-General powers are not codified in the constitution and are therefore steeped in some historical tradition known only to a few. A short coming of our minimalist document. If criminal law can be codified then powers of the GG shouldn’t present too much difficulty.

    ….
    I have never heard anyone talk about Australia’s political system as perfect or functional let alone the envy of the world.

    Indeed we came close to the ridiculous deadlock faced in other countries at the 2010 election. Our system is far from perfect… just lucky to date.

    The political system that has evolved is an inheritance from the mother country and is far from perfect. It allows two strong parties to dominate the scene. By definition the interest of the populace is distilled and dilluted. It has stymied individual creativity and or broader change.

    This is a reflection of the voting system- preferential voting. THE system is decided by the government of the day. The constitution is silent on these matters as well as voting age and compulsory voting.

    What politicians in other countries might be envious of is the widespread apathy of the general voting populace.


    Why shouldn’t a public official be subjected to public hearings? 


    We rely on judges to guard the principles [unwritten] that we all regard as being important.

    Unknown knowns being guarded by the unknown/untried by virtue they are judges/politicians and this shouldn’t be subject to review but at the discretion of the ruling political party… Hmm that sounds sensible NOT

    I was aghast that Kerr was seeking advice from chief justice of the high court and former Liberal in order to sack Whitlam.


    We don’t have federal gerrymanders because of S24 and a high court decision [on S24 of the Constitution] but we do have a mal-apportionment system where states are entitled to a particular number of seats irrespective of population.

    Tasmania has 5 seats because it is an original state but would not get 5 seats on a one vote one value. I wonder how many Australians know this or for that matter how many envious overseas constitutionalist would agree to this.

    Our current HoR is on a knife edge. I wonder whether it would be more clear cut or shambolic if voting was equal.

    

As to the specifics of a gerrymander the Australian Constitution doesn’t protect Australian’s from state gerrymanders. And it should.

    We’ve had gerrymandering in Queensland, South Australia & Western Australia

    In the Queensland case for example it was created by the ALP and embellished by Joh Bjleke Petersen and his coalition. They got away with this because of the deficiencies of both the state and federal constitutions. The respective constitutions did not recognizing a basic right of one vote one value
    Why does a gerrymander have to be extraordinary for it to be a problem?

    … this the one that “the Prime Minister does not even feature in our constitution”
    It doesn’t protect human rights – particularly citizen rights – taking of property on just terms has only been a recent phenomena.

    As the constitution evolved it has moved taxing powers to the commonwealth and together with the effects of S92 [related to state sales taxes] virtually emasculated the revenue raising capacity of the states while their expenditure demands have sky-rocketed.

    I doubt if any state would have agreed to this outcome.

    Then there’s been the creative law-making by the High Court allowing the commonwealth to do virtually anything as long as it is to a corporation, Howard’s recent workchoice legislation is an example.

    Not to mention the use of the external affairs power

    The original senate composition was to protect state rights and so that larger states didn’t dominate the smaller states. The senate is currently a states house in name only.

    These are only a few of the shortcomings of the current crazy minimalist constitution. There are others like the recognition of local governments

    As I read your piece I’m starting to think directly voting our leaders, something that IS happening in practice particularly as it pertains to the winning team since the mid-70s, seems a lot less crazy than some of the assertions you’ve made.

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  5. Drag0nista
    February 28, 2013

    I for one would not welcome our directly-elected overlord. It would be Dr Karl or, heaven forbid, Ricky Ponting.

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  6. Leinad
    February 28, 2013

    But, Drag0nista, that overlord would be able to appoint experts to cabinet positions. *Experts*.

    Public disengagement with democratic process = solved.

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  7. John Mainard Kaynes
    February 28, 2013

    Dragonista the saving grace of such a system – what can be elected can be unelected

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  8. jack
    March 1, 2013

    The swiss model works well and is a good model to emualate, on a number of different levels.

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  9. Carson
    March 3, 2013

    The Republican model that I dreamed up involved removing the Governor-General and transferring the responsibilities of that office to the High Court of Australia. The vice-regal appointment of judges upon Prime Ministerial nomination would be replaced by the Parliament appointing judges. These guys are the experts on Constitutional law and currently tasked with ruling on issues of Constitutional law, so they should be the best choice to perform any judgement calls currently in the hands of the Governor-General. And since there’s seven of them, any judgements should be even more stable.

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2013 by in Policies and tagged .

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