The headliner at the 2020 Summit’s governance stream was "the republic". This is not surprising given that the Summit format seemed geared towards consensus building – and that all but one participant were republicans. The tragedy however is that more substantive ideas that went into the Summit appear to have been buried at its expense. Professed republicans moreover have, ironically, become so obsessed by the Queen and the "big picture" items that they missed an opportunity to reform our one genuinely republican institution: the parliament.
A republican form of government is more than having a president as head of state. England learnt this lesson during the Cromwellian "republic", an episode that taught those who suffered it that what was truly important in the creation of a republic was not the title of a commonwealth, but rather the ability of the public and their representatives to limit the executive power of government. Without limits, a prime minister, president or Lord Protector as Cromwell styled himself, was no better than an elected monarch. The Roman experience was similar. It did not matter whether it was the Senate or the people who gave authority to the consuls of the republic; wherever these individuals were allowed unfettered power they inevitably became Emperors and enemies of republican government. Lord Acton’s famous proverb cannot be too often repeated: that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The genuinely republican element in our constitution therefore is the practice of representative and responsible government. This is embodied in the supremacy of a legislature elected by the people. Its role is to hold the government accountable between elections. Centuries of political struggle established the convention that the monarch is expected to follow the advice of the prime minister who is the leader of the legislature.
However, an entrenched and adversarial party system means the parliament is now in danger of becoming no more than an electoral college for the prime minister and cabinet. In this vein, the previous government was monarchical, not in its supposed loyalty to the monarch, but in its abuse of executive power and its contempt for parliament. Even monarchists were apt to observe that John Howard fancied himself as a king. Not only did he consistently usurp the symbolic role of the governor-general, but also frustrated the practical oversight role of parliament.
Harry Evans, former clerk of the Senate and 2020 Summit delegate laid this out in his submission – as he does in his chapter in the post-election book Dear Mr Rudd – his governance reform wishlist. The book’s editor, another summiteer Professor Robert Manne, was also among those who called for the revival and protection of parliamentary oversight on executive power through a variety of incremental and practical reforms. These proposals were based on a corollary list of executive abuses carried over from previous governments, from Children Overboard to the farcical passage of WorkChoices and other flawed legislation through parliament.
Some recent history is worth repeating. When it captured the Senate in 2005, the Howard government nearly halved sitting days of the senate; rejected over 98 per cent of amendments; refused to comply with orders for production of documents; abolished several committees and appointed themselves chairs of all others; and guillotined debate on 32 bills. Howard’s litany of offences demonstrates the institutional weakness of parliamentary government against the event of one party controlling both houses. It had only been the persistence of minor parties such as the Democrats in the Senate balance of power that had actually been making parliament work the way it should. It is no coincidence that many of the proposals for reform attempt to institutionalise the parliamentary practice and expectations established during the Democrats 25-year reign on the cross benches.
So what would meaningful reform of parliament look like? The answer is far less sexy than the "big picture" republic because it has nothing to do with identity politics, and everything to do with process and procedure. Among the proposals in the Evans paper are minimum time and process standards for passage of legislation, including committee scrutiny; mandatory full ministerial response to any amendments proposed by committees or individual members to government bills; ministerial advisers to appear in parliamentary forums to explain their executive actions; adherence to existing rules about question time; published selection criteria and merit-based selection processes for government appointments; and an increase in sitting days to at least 80 per year so that parliament has more opportunity to be a deliberative forum.
The most controversial and significant curtailment of executive power to be proposed was parliamentary ratification of foreign treaties and approval for the overseas deployment of armed forces. Such a process would have prevented Australia’s involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The power to declare war and make peace is the ultimate executive power. In Australia this has been given over completely to the government of the day as it exercises a kind of supremacy in this sphere once claimed by jealous monarchs like George III.
All of these reforms could be carried into law immediately. While individually modest and incremental, they would improve our democracy by strengthening its core republican institution: the parliament. Despite this, parliamentary reform did not make it into the "top ideas" list produced at the end of the Summit. Instead the republic headed the list – a vague, contentious and distant act of symbolic defiance against a monarchy that stopped oppressing republican rule a long time ago.
A cynic would suggest that this would suit the Labor Party, which, having now seized control of executive power is unlikely to set about limiting it. My hope however is that when he looks at the proposals that went into the governance forum, Kevin Rudd looks beyond the "big picture" headline items and seizes the opportunity for genuine, albeit modest and incremental, reforms such as those proposed by Evans. After all, it really is from little things like these that big things grow. A strengthened and revived parliament would be a lasting legacy that would pay great dividends far beyond 2020.
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