Why we need an elected President

With the death of Queen Elizabeth, the issue of an Australian republic has naturally arisen. The immediately following question is whether we should support a ‘minimal’ republic, as similar as possible to our current system, or replace the Governor-General with an elected President.

The starting point for both monarchists and supporters of a minimal republic. is the claim that ‘the existing system has worked well’. This is incorrect in two crucial respects

First, the current system gives the Prime Minister too much power, and this power has been increasingly abused in Australia and other Westminster systems. The discovery that Scott Morrison had been secretly sworn in to five separate ministries showed that, if the Governor-General had any role beyond that of a rubber stamp, this role had ceased to apply (except for the possibility, discussed later of a repeat of 1975). The increased use of ‘Henry VIII’ clauses, combined with the assumption that the Governor-General will automatically comply with their use by the PM has steadily undermined Parliamentary control.

In the UK and Canada, Prime Ministers who have lost their majorities in Parliament have prorogued Parliament, with the acquiescence of the Queen and Governor-General respectively. Johnson’s action was later ruled to be illegal, but the monarch did nothing to stop it. We need a President with sufficient independent legitimacy to resist improper demands from the PM.

Second, the issues raised by the 1975 constitutional crisis have never been resolved. Should the Senate choose, once again, to block Supply, the same problems would arise. The GG would have to either comply with emergency measures proposed by the PM, or repeat the deception practised by Kerr in 1975 to avoid being sacked. Alternatively, the PM might act pre-emptively, asking the King to appoint a puppet GG (perhaps even the PM themself) before the Senate had time to create a crisis.

The replacement of the GG with a President, secure from dismissal by the PM would

alleviate these problems. But this would depend on the President having sufficient legitimacy to rule against the PM where necessary. That legitimacy would be more secure if the President were directly elected than if they were appointed by a backroom deal between the major parties.

First, there is the default assumption in a democracy that the people should choose their rulers. Those who argue that the voters will inevitably get the choice wrong, for example by following the dictates of the Murdoch Press, ought to take the argument to its logical conclusion and support the (essentially) random procedure of choosing a monarch by primogeniture.

Second, there is the practical question of which procedure is more likely to select a political partisan.

The proposal that the President should be chosen by 2/3 majority of the House of Representatives is far from foolproof. Of the Federal elections since 1975, two (1975 and 1977) have produced governments with 2/3 majorities while 1996 came close. The same outcome has been seen in many state elections in that time. The 58 seats won by the LNP in 2022 are barely enough to give them a veto.

On the other hand, there is not much risk that either of the major parties could gain enough support to elect a partisan President, especially given a general presumption that the office should be non-partisan. Suppose that Labor, currently well ahead in the polls, nominated an obvious partisan. Provided the LNP did not follow suit, a respected independent would easily defeat the Labor candidate. Even if both major parties ran candidates, one of them would probably finish third, and an independent would win on preferences.

The final argument is that the idea of a nominated President has already been put to the people and resoundingly defeated. This failed model should not be given a second chance, just because it would suit the political class.

Would the President be too powerful? There is no reason to suppose so. The parliamentary republic with which we share the most history, the Republic of Ireland, has an elected President, and the system has worked very well. Even though candidates for President have been supported by political parties, they appear not to have acted as partisans in office, and have left the running of the country to the PM.

57 thoughts on “Why we need an elected President

  1. A footnote on the side-issue of whether Australia needs a Head of State at all. It’s quite true that the vast majority – possibly all – existing republics have one, maintaining the legal continuity with the monarchical scheme of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

    But not entirely. “The Federal Council (German: Bundesrat, French: Conseil fédéral, Italian: Consiglio federale, Romansh: Cussegl federal) is the executive body of the federal government of the Swiss Confederation and serves as the collective head of state and government of Switzerland.” (Wikipedia). It has a president, but he’s not the head of state, and takes the tram to work unrecognized by the other passengers.

    More interesting is the fact that one of the key players in the Westphalia negotiations was the United Provinces of the Netherlands. By far the richest and most powerful province was Holland, run by a merchant oligarchy whose leader was the Grand Pensionary, often from the de Witt family. But the commander of the army was the Stadtholder, the hereditary prince of the house of Orange. Inconveniently for genetic determinism, the descendants of the great William the Silent were men of far lower character and far greater military ability than their revered forebear. Dutch politics in the Golden Age were largely a long-drawn-out and bitter struggle between Stadtholder and Pensionary. “Bitter” is an understatement. The brothers Cornelis and Johan de Witt were lynched by an Orangist mob in 1672 and reportedly eaten. So much for Dutch self-restraint.

    The many other monarchical delegates at Westphalia no doubt thought the United Provinces a peculiar modernist shambles. But it was the most successful state in Europe, victor of the Eighty Years War of independence from Spain, a financial, trading and intellectual powerhouse, as well as an incipient welfare state (with Calvinist lectures). It was impossible to sideline in practice. So the Netherlands did not need a head of state to sign the treaties. I don’t think the rule has changed since. They only got one when a monarchy was imposed by the tidy-minded Napoleon in 1806. Not initially an Orange, but the family wangled the crown back in 1815 because.

  2. … because what? Super interesting, James! That is a giant bummer about getting eaten.

    I was just coming by to say, that while it is true I don’t understand Australian politics very well, I should say that it wouldn’t go well here if our president was able to furlough Congress whenever s/he wanted. Ha. No. So, that does sound serious.

    But, otherwise, I still have trouble relating bc I guess I’ve gotten used to my government not working, inasmuch as we are a divided country. (I think the Netherlands is, or was, pretty homogenous? I don’t have an opinion about Australia.) I don’t think we could manage without an individual upon whom to focus our various grievances.

  3. J-D, that comment is a logic bomb. And collapses as RM put it “the space to ask questions or put propositions without being expert on every detail.”

    How about J-D, you write one about the future of elected president or a Republic in general.

    Not as a response. Your space, not a reflected ‘your problems’ space of another’s space.

  4. “(I think the Netherlands is, or was, pretty homogenous? I don’t have an opinion about Australia.) ”

    The short somwewhat provocative answer to that would be that you are completly wrong. The very long answer can be found in multible academic texts under “corporatism” or “consicational democracy”. The literature is aproachable and the Netherland is a textbook case. Point being, this is actually interesting with broader applications. It won´t however be helpfull at all to fix say the US for her sice alone.

    The Netherlands are a country with many long lasting divisions that have been institutionaliced and managed through hierarchical negotations of all parties. Immigrants have never been part of this instituational apeacement the conflicts are rather open in that regard, and the system is less settled these days than say in the 70ths (having lots of gas money to distribute also helps to find social peace). Back to the op i´d say monarchy in the Netherlands has more going for itsself than in many other nations as a rather unifying non controversial or overtheatric symbol. If the Netherlands had an elected president (with symbolic powers) my prognosis would be rather pessimistic, with far right populists possibly winning and abusing the position.

  5. The NYT article beliw, re studies of neural alignment, before and after shared topic opinions, that a group conversation – (gee, a dialogue) – can align people’s opinions.

    Plus two examples of consensus building:
    1)  health [polixy / constitution ] decision encoding via  “Community-Based System Dynamics” including trauma.
    2) “how Keynesian economists and political actors worked together in the first phase of the crisis”

    Studies linked in NYT piece are good, and show one “blowhard” may constrain post conversation alignment toward shared opinions.

    Safe examples used in this study, not extremely polarized.  And harder than polarization is empathy toward trauma. Hence 1) below.

    And future research headed for instantaneous group neural imaging. Which at once sounds cutting edge and distopian sci fi – hook up to our group opinion alignment skullcap – or else.

    I’m still keen on using health care service delivery style policy formulation. Lived experience, bottom up, sortition based, human rights implicit.

    Still my question: what are processes to gain greater concensus of fundamental changes – before proposed model/s crystallized?

    “How to Change Minds? A Study Makes the Case for Talking It Out.

    “Researchers found that meaty conversations among several people can align beliefs and brain patterns — so long as the group is free of blowhards.


    “Participatory Machine Learning Using Community-Based System Dynamics
    “Specifically, the (Community-Based System Dynamics) CBSD process identified collective memory of community trauma (through deaths attributed to poor health care) and negative experiences with health care as endogenous drivers of seeking treatment and experiencing effective care, which in turn affect the availability and quality of data for algorithms.

    “We believe that a proactive, participatory, rights-based approach to ML fairness will provide the much-needed grounding for a set of globally salient and cross-culturally accepted values and principles and will help orient the conversation toward humans and the risks to their rights rather than machines and the risks of their biases. Businesses have the responsibility to protect and respect human rights, as outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.8 Effective and scalable participatory methods such as CBSD may help bring forth the perspectives of marginalized communities during the earliest stages of the product development process, enabling the co-creation of solutions by technologists and communities. These efforts could inform companies’ approaches to evaluating potential human rights impacts across the product life cycle.”


    “The Rise and Fall of Keynesianism During the Economic Crisis

    “This explains how Keynesian economists and political actors worked together in the first phase of the crisis to advocate for and implement fiscal stimulus. It also explains why aggrieved policy actors, who did not favor stimulus, could help disrupt the apparent consensus in the second phase of the crisis by promoting the views of dissident economists.”

  6. Some people might say that Switzerland does have a head of state, but it’s a collective head of state rather than an individual one; but I think that would be just a quibble. The system currently used in Switzerland is an exception to the pattern found in other countries, as was the system used in the United Provinces in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There’s no obvious reason in principle why other countries shouldn’t copy the Swiss system, but in practice they haven’t; in the 1890s, when Australian Federation was under discussion, some people advocated that Australia adopt features of the Swiss system, but unsuccessfully.

    Somebody who understands how our system works currently might say ‘Australia could do without an individual head of state if we adopted something like the Swiss system’; but somebody who says ‘We could get rid of the individual head of state and otherwise keep the same system we have now’ doesn’t understand how our system currently works.

  7. More questions than answers. And as J-D reminds us, most don’t understand how out system currently works.

    So the last paragraph of this article poses a question
    “And what about the media in Australia, including the ABC?
    “When are they going to publish articles and programs about governance system change?”

    “What kind of Republic? Who will campaign for it?

    By Klaas Woldring
    Oct 2, 2022


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