Happy Birthday, Mrs Windsor

It’s the Queen’s birthday here in Queensland, having been moved by the Labor government to separate it from May Day, which they already moved from October, reversing a decision of the Newman LNP government. Apart from reports on what is open today, I couldn’t find any reference to this event in the media, even from notional monarchists.

That pretty much sums up the irrelevance of the British monarchy in Australia. So, this seems like a good time to think about when we should become a republic, and what kind of republic we want.

Our last attempt was run by the unlamented Malcolm Turnbull who assumed that what everyone wanted was a change of figurehead that left the reality of the system unchanged. That reality is a Prime Ministerial dictatorship, constrained only by elections, obstreporous Senators and the ever-present possibility of a party-room coup. Looking at our system over recent years, I don’t think it’s performed very well, and I suspect that Turnbull might now agree.

Another important change is that outright Lower House majorities are no longer assured and may soon become the exception rather than the rule. The role of the Head of State in deciding who should be invited to form a government is now increasingly important. These decisions ought to be made by a President with the independent legitimacy that comes from an election.

Obviously, this isn’t the most important issue facing the nation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it and get moving on the issue. As usual, Bill Shorten (despite his unalterable image as a cautious timeserver) has taken the lead. I hope he will get the chance to act on this after the next election, and that he will take it.

17 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Mrs Windsor

  1. So… a popularly elected President, but with basically the same functions as the Governor-General today?

    How the heck does the election campaign for that work?

  2. Election by whom is the issue. If by the people, then the President has a popular mandate, but no means to execute it (without wholesale changes to the constitution – which presently centres on the supremacy of parliament). Maybe the German model would better suit? The German president has very similar powers to the G-G, and is elected by a convention consisting of all members of the federal parliament plus electors chosen by state parliaments in proportion to their populations, by secret ballot, without debate.

  3. Personally I would prefer we set up an independent panel to vet potential GG candidates. They could provide a ranked short list to the newly created office of, say, the Minister for Idiocracy, with Mitch Fifield as the inaugural post holder. He could then completely disregard all recommendations and appoint one of his mates to the position. Given this process has worked so well in the past I believe it has a lot of merit. What could possibly go wrong?

  4. This is one of those time when appointment by lot appeals. Perhaps the esteemed Nicholas Gruen could be persuaded to make a suitably formal proposal along those lines.

    It is unlikely to be worse than the processes that gave us John Kerr, Eddie Obeid and Ricky Muir. Compared to that lot having a “pin the presidential seal on the electoral roll” contest open only to under-fives has merit.

  5. Technically it is Lady Elizabeth (or Lady Betty) as she is the wife of an Australian Knight.

  6. Irish presidents campaign for election. They present a presidency program, rather than a government program. Mary Robinson wanted the Irish presidency to be more involved with the diaspora and with human tights. The Irish people preferred that to the practice of previous presidents and elected her. No elected president in a semi-presidential republic like Ireland has ever seized power or tried to overthrow the constitution. It really is incomprehensible how people again and again make flat factual-sounding statements about republics without ever bothering to check those facts first.

  7. “Elections … and the ever-present possibility of a party-room coup” are not constraints to be sneered at. I bet the US Republicans wish they had the latter in their toolbox.

    The danger with any change to our system of government is that it creates a whole new dynamic in which changes to our system of government are possible. If we changed it once, why not change it some more? After all the change has had unanticipated consequences (guaranteed) or not worked as well as expected. Fine tuning is obviously required! And the conservatives who poured all their energies into opposing any change at all will now have a new agenda to divert the change which has become inevitable into their preferred direction.

    For that reason it’s always seemed to me that the minimalist option is the one least likely to cause irreversible harm, and therefore the one that should be adopted. That’s not what I’d say if the majority of Australians were all Green-voting progressives like me, but they’re not. Having an Austalian head of state with the existing powers of the governor-general, appointed by a two-thirds majority of all federal and state MPs or some similar method, seems to me a modest, achievable and desirable goal which avoids unleashing indefinite instability in our system of government.

  8. The farm caused by the minimalist option is that it will never be enacted. minimalists are a relatively small minority among republicans and simply will never have the numbers to pass their nothing republic into law. Minimalists show no sign of engining meaningfully with the much larger segment of republican opinion that favours some other method of election except by repeatedly telling us we do not know what we are proposing.

    As it happens there is a very precise way for testing minimalist claims. The French Third Republic elected its manner one exactly the way proposed by minimalists. The Third Republic lasted from 1870 to 1940, so that is a reasonable test run. There were 14 presidents under this system. 2 resigned after constitutional conflicts with the parliament. 2 were forced out after corruption scandals. 1 was found to have been insane at the time of their election, proving Clemenceau’s quip that he always voted for ‘le plus stupide’. 1 refused to run for a second term, returned to the chamber of deputies and resumed what he called his real career. The last president, Albert Lebrun, who was probably suffering early stage dementia at the time of his election, signed the decree establishing the Vichy fascist regime, and was considered for prosecution as a Nazi collaborator after Liberation.

    That is the happiest record the minimalists can point to for the glorious certainties of a republic with a ‘safe’ president elected by the parliament.

  9. With Paul Keating’s broadside on Turnbull’s “capitulation” (SMH Wed 3rd Oct) on the republic and an imminent visit by young Harry and Megan, the issue is about go through the hoops methinks. The monarchists will bask in the rejuvenated royalist hysteria post-Elizabeth and the polls will predictably
    ‘vindicate’ the ‘no change’ zeitgeist. I despair.

  10. Serious question: won’t an elected head of state inevitably have a party affiliation, making them arguably more legitimate but much less independent?

  11. Ah, minimalism where assumptions about the political order are as fixed and certain as the orbit of the planets,, and elected presidents inevitably have party affiliation.

    In the French Third Republic the president was elected by a 2/3 vote of the chamber of deputies and the senate. They had 14 presidents between 1870 and 1939. All but one were former members of parliament with a party affiliation. The exception resigned after a constitutional conflict with the parliament. But in Ireland, where the president is elected by the people, not only have 5 of the 9 presidents had no party affiliation, but no president has ever had a constitutional conflict with the parliament, or even been accused of acting in a partisan way.

    In Project Republic: Plans and Arguments for a New Australia (2013), Thomas Keneally reveals that all the officers and candidates of the Australian Republican Movement were not elected by the ARM membership, but appointed by Malcolm Turnbulll and Nevill Wran, who also provided the office space and the staff. You might almost question whether a form of republic dictated by two political magnates might raise a few eyebrows. I don’t think anyone would question that why an organisation controlled by two political magnates would decide that only a republic of political magnates could possibly work.

  12. The Independent on the >a href=:https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ireland-blasphemy-referendum-vote-october-2018-poll-free-speech-presidential-election-a8572891.html“>current Irish presidential election. Candidates are offering different presidential platforms to the Irish people. They are not competing with the government. No-one shows any sign of wanting to displace the government from power.

    Just because you hear or read that elected presidents will inevitably have party affiliation (or that appointed presidents inevitably will not) does not make it so.

  13. Tom Davies, we don’t have any better guide to answer your question than the experience of dozens of other countries with parliamentary republican systems.

    In countries where Presidents are elected by the voters, most of them have party affiliations, but there have been several instances of Presidents elected without party affiliation.

    In countries where Presidents are elected by parliamentarians, most of them have party affiliations, but there have been several instances of Presidents elected without party affiliation.

    As far as I can tell from the experience of those countries (including, interestingly, a few which have changed from one method of election to the other), both systems seem to work about equally well (or, if you prefer, about equally badly, which is the same thing)–also, they both seem to work about as well (or as badly, if you prefer) as the system we have now.

  14. J-D

    You do get a difference in the quality of candidates, their independence from established parties, and the degree to which those parties seek to instrumentalise the presidency. By all those standards elected presidencies outperform appointed presidencies.

    While a number of notable republics (Germany, India, Italy) have appointed presidents, very few have presidents appointed by parliament, as minimalists propose in Australia or as prevailed in France under the Third and Fourth Republics. The minimalist republic would have guaranteed that the Coalition and Labour would control the presidency forever. In Germany, India and Italy the election is by a mixed body of state and federal MPs and there is at least the possibility for the offical candidate to be defeated. That would not have been the case under Turnbull-Wran minimalism.

  15. Albania, Armenia, Bangladesh, Dominica, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Malta, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago have Presidents chosen by the national parliament. The number of parliamentary republics which have Presidents chosen by the national parliament is larger than the number of countries (like Germany, India, Italy, and Pakistan) which have Presidents chosen by mixed bodies including state/regional representatives as well as members of the national Parliament.

    The fact that one system is used by more countries than another is not a good argument in favour of Australia adopting it. In a country like Australia, having the President chosen by a mixed body of Federal and State representatives is a plausible option. My point is that there are enough examples of different systems to show that they all work about equally well (or, if you prefer, about equally badly, although it’s the same thing). My personal preference is for a republic with a President chosen by the voters, but I’d still take a republic with a President chosen by MPs (either the Federal Parliament or a mixed State-Federal body) over the present system. I spelled out in detail the procedure I would suggest in a comment on a different post, so I’m going to copy that and paste it into a comment here as well.

  16. Here is the plan I would suggest (supposing there were any chance my opinion would be attended to) to an incoming government (or, for that matter, to the incumbent government, except that there’s no chance this goverment would be interested).

    The first step would be to set up two teams of experts (or the next step could be handled by just one team, but I’m going to describe it with two because it’s clearer that way, although I don’t have a strong reason to prefer the two-team model).

    Team 1 would prepare a discussion paper dealing with models for a parliamentary republic with a president chosen by parliamentarians, considering the experience of such countries as Albania, Armenia, Bangladesh, Dominica, Estonia, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago. It would circulate that paper, invite written submissions, hold public hearings, and then draft a proposal for an amendment of the Australian Constitution to create a parliamentary republic with a president chosen by parliamentarians.

    Team 2 would prepare a discussion paper dealing with models for a parliamentary republic with a president chosen by the voters, considering the experience of such countries as Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. It would circulate that paper, invite written submissions, hold public hearings, and then draft a proposal for an amendment of the Australian Constitution to create a parliamentary republic with a president chosen by the voters.

    The next step would be to publish the two proposals and hold a popular vote with three options on the ballot paper: Option 1 would be the proposal developed by Team 1; Option 2 would be the proposal developed by Team 2; Option 3 would be ‘No Change’.

    If Option 3 won the popular vote that would be the end of it; if either of the other options would be won, then it would be passed through Parliament and put to a referendum.

    Out of that subset of people who have any strong views on the question at all, there are large proportions who have strong feelings either in favour of or against either a president chosen by the parliamentarians or a president chosen by the voters, and many people feel they understand the difference between them. The three-option ballot would settle which of those two is the popular preference, or it might demonstrate that the division between the two is irrelevant because a majority favour the current system over either of them. All the other issues which would have to be settled in order to change to a republic are ones that very few people have strong feelings about and many people have no clear ideas about. They should be settled before a popular vote, so there’s no question about what it is people are being asked to vote on.

  17. J-D

    Another suggested but unfounded justification for ignoring indirectly elected presidents is that parliamentary systems with such presidents are not very common (Siaroff 2003, 308). According to Freedom House rankings, as of 2006, there were 148 democratic, that is, “free” or “partly free,” countries in the world. Somewhat less than a third-42-of these countries are parliamentary democracies with either directly or indirectly elected head of state. Of those, 21 countries elected a president indirectly at some time while democratic since World War II. Amorim Neto and Strom (2006) report that as of 2000, 32 of Europe’s 46 independent states are parliamentary systems with elected heads of state, and 12 use indirect methods. Clearly, this type of parliamentary system is more common than is often acknowledged. Furthermore, understanding the implications of holding direct presidential elections in parliamentary democracies is relevant not only in countries that currently have both presidents and prime ministers. It is equally relevant to countries with other types of regimes, such as constitutional monarchies and presidential systems that contemplate constitutional changes. For example, Sweden has continuously debated abolishing the monarchy and establishing a presidency. The Netherlands seriously considered a dual executive in the 1960s and 1970s (Siaroff 2005, 147). Both Brazil and Argentina have discussed adopting a regime type other than presidential (Shugart and Carey 1992, 2).

    Margit Tavits. Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter? (Kindle Locations 117-124). Kindle Edition.

    Merely running off a list of countries is meaningless without also posting the the list of countries that you are drawing from.

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