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.
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.