Presidents, Prime Ministers and parties

The discussion of my Queen’s Birthday showed that at least some readers have problems thinking about how an elected presidency would work, what powers the president should have and so on. There are many different models out there, but my idea is that the president would acquire the current powers of the Governor-General (dissolving parliaments, including double dissolutions; resolving disputes between the Houses; and initiating the formation of governments after elections) but with less deference to the wishes of Prime Ministers than in the past. For example, the President could reject the shenanigans with absurdly drawn out election timetables that we saw in 2016, and saw proposed in 2013, and could refuse a snap election called to take advantage of a favorable climate.

Assuming this role, the President’s views on policy issues wouldn’t matter much; rather we would be looking for personal characteristics such independent mindedness and capacity for good judgement in a crisis. A possible side benefit would be that parliamentary elections would be more about policy and less about the personality of the party leaders.

Under the current system, we are called on to vote on a presidential basis, but with no guarantee that the elected leader will see out a term. Even if the rules were tightened to make spills more difficult, we would still have the problem of a successful leader voluntarily retiring mid-term, as Menzies did and as both Hawke and Howard promised to do.

37 thoughts on “Presidents, Prime Ministers and parties

  1. oh JQ, you are so fonnee.

    “assuming this role,the President’s views on policy issues wouldn’t matter much” eyes are dribbling, i’d better stop or my nose will be next.

    which is embarrassing.

  2. It’s true that Ireland shows that a directly elected President can stay within the backstop/ceremonial role. But you have to look at the French Fifth Republic for evidence on the side that power grows out of the ballot box, creating a real problem in a parliamentary régime.

    That’s what France had in the Fourth Republic. Réné Coty’s job was to broker coalitions in the frequent parliamentary crises. (Schuman usually stayed Foreign Minister whatever happened.) Michel Debré wrote the constitution of the Fifth Republc in 1958 with a clever Janus double face. Article16 allowed de Gaulle to rule as a Roman dictator (i.e. exercising an exceptional but law-governed and temporary office) to deal with the grave Algerian crisis. But after de Gaulle left, the constitution would become parliamentary again. Indirect election by notables ensured that de Gaulle’s successor would be a Coty clone. Most of the detailed changes were to reinforce the position of the Prime Minister against the parliament, and make the previous merry-go-round unlikely. But in 1961 de Gaulle decided for some reason I don’t know to have the President henceforth directly elected. This was approved by referendum. The resulting system is a kludge. Several times over you had Presidents and Prime Ministers of opposing parties, with Mitterrand glaring down the Cabinet table at Chirac. That particular issue was fixed with a synchronisation of the electoral calendars, but it’s still a weird hybrid of a presidential and a parliamentary system, tilting towards presidential power.

    To get Ireland rather than France, you do need to define the President’s powers very carefully indeed.

  3. The crucial fact about France was de Gaulle himself. Also, I’m pretty sure the 5th republic gave the President power over foreign policy. In the absence of a crisis on a par with Algeria, we’ll get Ireland.

  4. I am in favour of Australia becoming a republic. However, we should not become a republic in the US sense. We should avoid becoming becoming “a republic and not a democracy” as some US conservatives accurately characterise their constitution and system.

    Keep the Governor-General with the same powers as now, except for any reference to the UK monarch and powers. Have the Governor-General selected from the pool of existing State Governors by a combined vote of Federal Parliament houses. State Governors would attend the Parliament vote in question and indicate to the Speaker willingness to stand or not stand before the selection.

  5. The Swiss model is one where the President is appointed by the states. This could work here as the functions of the Crown are shared between federal and state govts.

    What I don’t want is a US style of president, with its corrupted and gerrymandered electoral procedure.

  6. I’m with Ico, although there is the under-discussed problem that the state Governors themselves have formal ties to the UK Monarch, and breaking the ties federally doesn’t mean breaking them at the state level.

  7. Personal preferences for different models aside, if a proposal for Australia to become a republic is to have any likelihood of occurring, there needs to be a deliberative process that is sufficiently broad and democratic to establish legitimacy and achieve sufficiently wide consensus on the approach to be taken.

    One of the significant problems with the 1998-1999 process was that it was rushed, and lacked sufficient democratic legitimacy (i.e. half the delegates to the constitutional convention were appointed by the government, and the convention only sat for two days). This may have been deliberate, as a truncated process with contested legitimacy would be less likely to lead to a successful referendum outcome. It does not contrast well with the 1890s process leading up to federation, which involved a democratically elected convention (albeit with male-only suffrage) that met in multiple cities over the course of two years.

    A genuinely inclusive and democratic deliberative process, staged over several years, might potentially be a means of re-engaging the Australian public with the political system. Although there are many things about the constitution that can be improved, in my view the disengagement of the public is the bigger sources of the problems with our political system over the past few years.

  8. JQ: de Gaulle died in 1970, seven years before Macron was born. Of course the genesis and first decade of the Fifth Republic was all about him. But France now has almost 50 years of experience of the functioning of the institutions he designed, without his personal involvement: quite enough to judge the system as a benchmark. Gaullism today is just a label for moderate conservatism.

  9. I’m not sure how you could stop the inevitable clash of power with a popularly elected President and a PM. At present the GG will sign anything passed by the Parliament into law. A popularly elected President could claim the authority to reject legislation, even if passed by both houses (like the US President veto power?). But, if you said that the President must sign any legislation that is passed by the Parliament then what’s the point of having that person popularly elected? Seems quite tricky to resolve.

  10. Rog

    In Switzerland the presidency is insignificant. The federal council, the executive, is elected by joint sitting of the federal parliament and its members take turns at a year as president. The only involvement of the cantons is through their representation in the upper house of the federal parliament.


    Most presidential republics, let alone semi-presidential republics and parliamentary republics do not give their presidents the same powers as the US president. Ireland has been chugging along quite nicely with an elected ceremonial president and not a whiff of grapeshot for quite a long time now. Presidential elections have functioned as a way for the Irish people to communicate messages tot he political elite they cannot communicate in the a general election.

  11. ‘I’m not sure how you could stop the inevitable clash of power with a popularly elected President and a PM.’

    I’m not sure how the Portuguese stop it. I’m not sure how the Austrians stop it. I’m not sure how the Finns stop it. I’m not sure how the Irish stop it, or the Icelanders, or the Singaporeans, or the Serbians, Bulgarians, Slovakians, Croatians, Macedonians, Slovenians, or Montenegrins. But obviously if in so many instances there has been success in stopping it, you must be wrong to describe it as inevitable.

  12. J-D

    Also the Italians, Greeks, Israelis and Germans.

    The US and France are highly unusual.

  13. France is actually pretty damning to the conflict theory. The Fifth Republic has seen extended periods where the president and the prime minister were politically opposed. If the minimalist claim were true then France should have suffered profound constitutional crises every time a president lost a parliamentary election. That would be 1986, 1993 and 2007 and they would be up to the Eighth Republic by now.

  14. I don’t think it is as easy as substituting the GG with a President. At present the PM advises the Queen who then appoints her GG. This is the same with the States; they are all governed by vice regal appointees.

    The functions of the Crown are shared between States and the Federal govts. It would defy logic for Australia to become an independent republic while the States govts swore their allegiance to a foreign monarch.

    Before a republic can be envisaged there will have to be work done on the Constitution, or even a new Constitution, and this will have to include the States and their Constitutions so that they are harmonious.

  15. “with less deference to the wishes of Prime Ministers than in the past”
    seems a formulation directly designed to bring up Kerr, which I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet. If a president could refuse a snap election they could presumably call a snap election. Constitutional crisis much.

  16. I honestly don’t understand how our current system is not a republic. If the mere mention of the queen is disqualifying, then a reform so that the gg is appointed directly by the PM would make a republic, yes?
    Is the whole thing merely about a couple of words?

  17. There is no ‘presumably’. If we were so stupid as to write a constitution that allowed the president to act as you described, frankly we would deserve the consequences.

  18. J-D: Finland and Poland (both with direct election of the President) are instructive for both arguments. The Finnish Presidency used to have real power (see Kekkonen) but according to Wikipedia the powers of the office have scaled back by constitutional anendments, so it’s now basically a ceremonial backstop. The current Polish President Duda is deeply partisan and has sped along the dismantling of judicial independence by his cronies in the right-wing populist Law and Justice party.

    It might help to think of the political incentives to nominate partisan candidates under direct election. Australia is more normal in its party spectrum than Ireland, where the divisions are on historical lines rather than left/right. I suspect parties would put forward their own elder statesmen, i.e. elderly hacks. German indirect election isn’t perfect, but at least the party hacks alternate with men (no women yet) of real stature like Weiszäcker and Gauck.

  19. Ireland has not elected an elderly party hack since 1990. President Mícheál Dónal Ó hUigínn is the first former pelican in 28 years. He isa former member f the Labour Party, the smallest of the big three and a distinguished poet and man of letters. The Irish have elected more poet presidents than anyone else. That must speak well of their good sense. Ó hUigínn fits that mould.

    Your points about Poland are absurd. The Polish presidency has always been partisan and Duda has been, if anything, a moderating voice in the government formed by his party.

  20. Alan: you do not address what I wrote. My initial comment conceded the Irish success; I later suggested a reason for the peculiarity. “Poland’s President has always been partisan”. How does this argue against the same risk in Australia?

  21. Poland’s presidency has not always been partisan. Lech Walensa, like Mandela and Washington, would have been elected and was not at all closely aligned with Solidarity during his term. Aleksander Kwaśniewski, although elected as a Social Democrat t his first erm, was elected and served as an independent in his second term and is the only president to be re-elected since 1989.

    Poland’s problem is that an authoritarian xenophobic party has control of both the Sejm and the presidency. That cannot be the result of an elected president because Hungary and Czechia have appointed presidents.

    Poland’s situation is the result of a poorly designed electoral system where the combination of high electoral thresholds caused 13.5% of the votes not to be counted in the parliamentary election, and the particular quota used, the D’Hondt quota favours the largest party. That had the unhappy effect of transforming 37% of the popular seats into a majority of parliamentary seats. Poland uses the two-round system to elect the president, which again and the effect of amplifying 34.76 of the vote at the first round into 51.55% at the second round.

    An Australian president would be elected by preferential voting and these kinds of reversed election results would not occur. Duda has been somewhat more moderate than the government itself, and that is a known characteristic of presidents under semipresidential systems, not the reverse as you claim.

  22. 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.

  23. One unlikely tweak would be to require that the President not be a party member (perhaps use the public service rules?). The parties probably wouldn’t like it, so I can’t see how we’d get to implement it. And we might end up with the same situation where Howard appointed his old mate as GG, and I can’t see how to legislate against that. I mean, how could you legislate to systematically exclude the likes of Bolt or Devine from the presidency? (no similar left or green wing examples, somehow they just don’t get gifted Our Murdoch’s favour the same way).

  24. I mean, how could you legislate to systematically exclude the likes of Bolt or Devine from the presidency?

    Yes, all candidates definitely pass an ideological test before they are allowed to be candidates.

    This is the problem with the Left advocacy of a republic. There is a hidden assumption that because a republic is a progressive idea, opposed by conservatives, then ipso facto any and all presidents will be progressives. To which I say, really? It is easy to imagine any number of prominent conservative figures getting elected.

  25. J-D, given that any change to the constitution requires a double majority I would suggest that 3 options, involving 6 outcomes, would be a guaranteed failure. The hard yards should be done prior to going to a referendum and given the history of refendums in Australia a compelling argument for change has to be well established and broadly accepted before going to the ballot box.

  26. I mean, how could you legislate to systematically exclude the likes of Bolt or Devine from the presidency?

    The democratic answer is that we could not and should not. However, to win a presidential election with preferential voting you must secure more than half the votes and that means appealing to the median voter. Neither Bolt nor Devine are nowhere near the national median voter and are never going to be.

    Trump is not a relevant example because the electoral college requires candidates to the appeal to the median voter in battleground states who is a quite different person from the median voter across the whole country. No-one campaigns in California or Texas, or appeals to the median voter in those states because it is assumed that California will vote Democratic and Texas will vote Republican.

    In semipresidential countries where there is both and cited prime minister and an elected president, presidential elections tend to have a moderating influence because the presidential election is national and the median voter rules, but in a parliamentary election you only need to address those districts that are competitive.

  27. rog:

    Because I know how the Australian Constitution works, I am not recommending a referendum with three options. The Australian Constitution doesn’t allow that. I am recommending a referendum that complies with the requirements of the Australian Constitution, because that’s the only legal way the Australian Constitution can be changed. That is the final step of the process I suggested.

    A ballot with three options on the ballot paper (not being a constitutional referendum, because it can’t be) is an intermediate step in the process I suggested, not the final step. With three options on the ballot paper, you don’t have six possible outcomes, you have three (namely, ‘Option 1 wins’, ‘Option 2 wins’, ‘Option 3 wins’).

    I agree that a compelling argument for change should be made before proceeding to a referendum. I never suggested anything to the contrary. The process I described is intended to make room for the compelling argument for change to be made. If it turns out not to be compelling enough, then the referendum stage at the end of the process won’t be reached. I think the referendum should be the end of the process, not the beginning. So do you. So what do you imagine we’re disagreeing about?

  28. Yes but it’s unlikely that a >50% majority can be achieved with 3 options to choose from. You could get 40% for the No and 30% for each of the other 2 which would mean that the No wins with a minority of the vote.

  29. At present the Constitution vests executive power of the commonwealth in the Queen. If there is a change in the monarchy and a King is invested our Constitution could be in strife as it makes no allowance for a King.

  30. Rog the role passes on to the Queen’s heirs and successors. Good job too as the Queen died three weeks after federation. As a constitutional literalist I presume this means all the Kings of Australia were Queens of Australia.

  31. Yes but it’s unlikely that a >50% majority can be achieved with 3 options to choose from. You could get 40% for the No and 30% for each of the other 2 which would mean that the No wins with a minority of the vote.

    If you ran it as a first-past-the-post ballot, yes, but why would you do that rather than either an optional preferential ballot or a compulsory preferential ballot? I didn’t recommend a first-past-the-post ballot, and I wouldn’t.

    If you wanted to get fancy, you could go with approval voting or range voting, but Australians are more familiar with preferential voting and so shouldn’t have too much difficulty understanding either the procedure of voting or the interpretation of the result.

    It’s possible that there is a majority that would prefer the idea of sticking with the present monarchical model to switching to a republic with a President chosen by parliamentarians, and a differently constituted majority that would prefer the idea of sticking with the present monarchical model to switching to a republic with President chosen by the voters. If so, a preferential ballot would disclose this. That would be a disappointment to me personally, but it would justify not changing. I don’t know that it’s true, however, Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. If it is true, I think it would be better to know that it’s true.

  32. Let’s not get fancy.

    The proposal known as “Range Voting” has gotten some attention as a result of William Poundstone’s book, Gaming the Vote. While a useful tool for rating movies and products on the Internet, where the “voters” are predominantly disinterested judges who are not highly invested in the outcome, it has severe problems in high-stakes elections where the voters genuinely care about the outcome. Prof. Nicolaus Tideman, one of the top election method experts in the world, wrote in his recent book, Collective Decisions and Voting, that Range Voting is one of six “unsupportable” methods that “have defects that are so serious as to disqualify them from consideration.” While Tideman was largely focused on the susceptibility to strategic manipulation, there are other more fundamental problems with the underlying assumptions of Range Voting that are addressed in this brief essay.

    Apart from its theoretical defects, the experience with range voting in the small number of organisations that have ever used it, is that it rapidly defaults to first past the post because it is in the interests of both candidates and voters to vote for a single candidate, Approval voting is even less satisfactory and it is probably a nontrivial fact that it sonly governmental use was in the former Soviet Union.

  33. Alan: “Texas votes Republican”. This old truism is being tested in the November senatorial election. Beto O’Rourke, an exceptionally attractive Democrat, has a fighting chance (no more) against the exceptionally unattractive Republican Ted Cruz. Ann Richards made Governor. There’s hope for the Lone Star yet.

  34. James, you may care to look up truism in the dictionary before you use it again.

    Ann Richards was elected in 1990.

    That was the last occasion that Texas elected a Democratic governor or federal senator. Texas has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1994. The Texas senate has not had a Democratic majority since 1997. The Texas house of representatives has not had a democratic majority since 1994. The senate majority is 21/10 and the house majority is 95/55.

    Pointing to elections over a generation ago and expressing hope in Beto O’Rourke is not quite enough to declare the statement that Texas votes Republican a truism in the face of overwhelming evidence that it does.

    I hope Beto wins too, but Beto and Ann are not enough to erase a generation of Republican dominance. Indeed so central to the Republican national majority is Texas that if the state ever does flip, as California did in 1992, the Republicans will not have a viable path to the presidency.

  35. Alan:
    Let’s see. My microprinted OED (1928 with Supplement) defines “truism” thus:
    “a self-evident truth, especially one of slight importance; a statement so obviously true as not to require discussion”. My obviously ironical use was therefore quite correct. I can’t afford the current OED, and old meanings are still available, so I may have missed a possible new meaning: “2. a fallacy (a mis-attribution by self-important amateur pedants now in common use).”
    It is a curiously common for grammar and usage peeves to shoot from the hip without checking, relying on the faulty instructions absorbed in youth during their partial education. See Geoffrey Pullum’s many posts at Language Log.

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