A Reputation For Democratic Innovation


Ben Raue’s recent article on the potential shape of a future Australian republic raised a number of interesting points. Raue is right when he argues that the focus on the putative powers and role of an Australian president occludes more pressing issues enshrined in the Constitution. However it doesn’t follow that the issue should be put to bed. There is ample room in Australian politics for a powerful president, and in fact, it might make us a more democratic nation.

Australia’s constitution, for all its reliance on the established conventions of the Westminster system, is itself a hybrd — a "Washminster" system.

It is a significant departure from British governmental procedures. Unlike Canada, we refused to give our senators lifelong terms. Instead, we opted for an American six year Senatorial term. We also took from America the names for our houses — the House of Representatives and Senate also being the names for the two assemblies of the United States’ Congress.

To these small substitutions we added our own twists. We are currently one of only 12 countries worldwide that enforce compulsory voting, and one of only two previous British dominions (Singapore being the other). Unlike both Washington and Westminster, we offer preferential voting as well. And for a long time the secret ballot was also known as an "Australian" ballot, which Teddy Roosevelt, the great American progressive, once argued was the purest form of democracy. We may have some alarming blind spots as a nation, but we are still at the cutting edge of political procedure. That is a reputation worth trying to keep — and the role of president in a republican Australia should be central to that purpose.

Raue outlines one of the most alarming features of our current system: that the office of the prime minister, not specified or explained in the Constitution, wields incredible power. The PM appoints the governor-general and exercises vice-regal power by proxy. The prime minister appoints High Court judges to the judiciary, and ministers to the executive. Through the binding power of party discipline and a historical tendency towards majority control, the prime minster also dictates both legislative agendas and parliamentary debate. All three arms of government — legislature, executive, judiciary — are centralised in one person. Our parliamentary leaders can call on comparatively far more power than any American president ever could.

We looked to America in 1901 for examples of how to modify our own constitution as we wrote it. We should look to them now.

Americans understand the ideas of checks and balances. Though we are taught to think of the president as the legislative leader in American politics, this view completely ignores the importance of negotiation between the White House and Congress. The electorate is alive to this process — historically, mid-term elections go to the party not currently occupying the White House, unless that party has done something very wrong by voters.

Some of the best-remembered presidents in history have faced opposed congresses. Nixon, for example, had to carefully negotiate his legislative agenda with a Democratic Congress, and the emergent consensus was the better for it. On top of this, the presidentially appointed judiciary plays a much stronger role in American politics. A liberal Supreme Court was the major proponent and enforcer of both desegregation and the right to abortion in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when both Congress and successive presidents had failed African-Americans and American women.

A directly elected, Australian president could, if sufficiently empowered, grant the electorate a powerful democratic voice capable of better conversing with an all-powerful legislature. Instead of a legislative agenda formulated in secret and only briefly argued in Parliament, a president responsible for appointing ministers and High Court justices, entering debate with a prime minister responsible for new laws, could give us room for a much broader, transparent democratic conversation.

The trick is getting the separation of powers right. Currently, those powers are separate only in the constitution. In practice, they are all wielded by one person.
Clearly, there are concerns. This would entail an immediate change to a system that has always progressed through evolutionary steps. The Americans had the blessing (and curse) of a tabula rasa in 1776; we do not. We are a risk-averse people, and proposed change on this scale is unlikely to succeed at a referendum.

Nor should we adopt American political structures off the shelf. The complexities of American politics mean that consensus is almost impossible to reach without some sort of crisis, real or imagined, that galvanises Congress and the White House. The politics of crisis have led to some dreadful outcomes in American politics, the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq being chief among them. After Reagan and Bush senior stacked it over 12 years, the Supreme Court subverted the democratic process in the 2000 election. The American system isn’t perfect either.

Nevertheless these concerns should not stand in the way of a more creative republican debate. Removing the Queen from our constitution, currency and possibly flag, would be a radical step and we should treat it as such. If the office of governor-general is not performing the way it was intended to, and that is a problem we need to fix.

The 1999 referendum was the first time I exercised my franchise. I voted then for a republic, even though I supported an appointed rather than elected president at the time. Were the referendum held today, I would vote that way again but for different reasons.

By convention and historical inertia, the office of the governor-general simply grants enormous power to the prime minister. If that office is under review, we should certainly attend to this latter problem. The answer is not eliminating the governor-general, it is recrafting the office to allow a more democratic, transparent, accountable government in Australia. Strengthening the office and allowing direct election of this empowered president only gives the Australian voter more of a voice.


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