Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hung Parliament and Republicanism

After our election on 21 August, we in Australia currently have ourselves a "hung parliament." A hung parliament is where no single party has a clear majority and so a Federal Executive Council (the Cabinet) - comprised of the Prime Minister and other Ministers of State - cannot be pre-determined by party operations and adopted by Parliament in a rubber-stamp fashion. Instead we get what we have now, a lot of wrangling between the major parties and each negotiating or whatnot with minor parties and independents. Until this is sorted we only have a "caretaker" government composed of the previous Council, insofar as Members retain their Seats in Parliament. Thus, despite the election, Ms Gillard is still our PM until a deal is struck somewhere that sees either Labor no longer have the upper hand or, if Labor does cobble up an alliance, she gets booted by her own party just as Rudd did.

This situation made me wonder whether I had underrated the importance of a particular reform. I have always been in favour of a republic in principle, but never got behind any of the Republican movements because their motives and priorities were, at best, skewiff. My own attitude had been that, yes, we should be a republic, but this was a low priority that paled in comparison to reform of powers of Parliament (the monstrosity that is Section 51). I still wont get behind any of the current Republican movements I am aware of and will until further notice consistently vote against them, but this situation has given me occasion to reconsider my own attitude.

(As to my own Constitution, I have since realised there were some errors in it, such as excessively making land ownership of the surface extend all the way down to the Mohorovicic Discontinuity. I'll resume posting commentary when I can get time.)

As part of these thoughts I also had thought up a set of Convention reforms as an interim to a total change of the Australian Constitution. The reform is simply to elevate the Governor General's current position into an elected Office whose holder takes a greater interest than present in the content of bills presented for assent and the exercise of other Constitutionally-provided powers. What I have in mind is compatible with the existing Constitution, requiring no Alterations. I don't know how original I am with this, it's just my own thoughts as an interim measure. I also know that this is not without precedent, as demonstrated by the dismissal of Gough Whitlam's Cabinet by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, itself an act whose underlying principles were expressly stated three years before in a lecture given by a previous Governor-General before I was even born.

First, the Governor-General directly - Section 2 of the Constitution says that the Queen shall appoint a Governor General who shall be her representive during her pleasure. Neither that section nor any other in the Constitution indicates the basis for the Queen's choice. The current convention is that the existing Prime Minister chooses and tells Her Majesty that she will appoint so-and-so. This has no actual force of law, so the idea then is to change the convention in favour of a popularly elected GG. Of course, it can be counter-argued that having the selection method being election has no force of law either - ah, but while that is not in black-letter law it certainly has force of morality and justice behind it, which the present convention lacks. The importance of that is not to be underestimated. What this will require, however, is definite legislation that formally sets the term of a GG (presently five years by convention) and empowers the AEC to run those elections the same as it does others.

The Governor-General would then choose from among the MP's who shall be the various Ministers of State as per Sections 62 and 64, except that now there would be no Prime Minister. This avoids a hung Parliament because it would either like or lump the GG's decisions. The prospect of this would then be an issue for people to consider when they cast their vote for Governor-General, plus also be an issue for the voters in the electorates of the MP's likely to be chosen or previously chosen as Ministers.

It is also retaining the people's prerogative because the GG could only choose from among those whom people have elected to Office. In fact, it could strengthen the power of such prerogative because the GG is not beholden to horse-trading to maintain his own Office - that is, so long as the holder retains the sense of solemnity traditionally attached to the role, the loss of which is a consideration that other commentators have indeed raised in regards to a politicised Head of State. Further, as a practical note, if a Minister loses his Seat as an MP, Section 64(4) still allows the incumbent to sit for three months while the Governor General decides on a replacement, so there wont be chaos if that MP does lose his seat. This also means that I'd advise that the term of a Governor-General be the same as, and begin and end at the same time as, that of the House of Representatives. This means three years, rather than the current five.

Having a politically active Governor-General is not without problems directly relating to practice of governance, though. Consider Sections 5(1) and 28, giving the GG power to dismiss Parliament. Currently the power is used for the PM to pick the dates of elections in discussions with the GG as per Section 32, but an active GG could be autocratic with that authority, using it as a blunt instrument to intimidate Parliament into passing bills a GG favours, which was one of the just complaints that the US Founding Fathers had about King George III. Thus before legislation for an elected GG is put in place there would have to be provisions that set out under what contitions a GG could exercise power under those Sections.

It is problems like that which make me wonder whether it is worth the trouble, and this is apart from the fact that it would be not much more than a ludicrous exercise in pragmatism if pursued without reference to moral principles. Moreover, as is often the case for many ideas for reform, if the will existed amongst the majority of people to implement the reforms then it is likely that this same will would be in favour of a total change of Constitution to something like what it ought read. Thus after reconsideration, I reaffirm my position: republicanism in and of itself is a low priority and that gutting Section 51 or legislation based thereupon should be the true short-term target, with the the proper longer term target remaining as social change sufficient to get support for a new Constitution centred on a full bill of rights that properly protect individual rights through specifying them and civil rights to match and in which Constitutional change a move to republicanism would be part and parcel.

There is also that putting such legislation into place would be a momentous affair that would divide the nation bitterly. Presently, most on the Monarchist side are ardent traditionalists who have nothing to offer but tradition as an end in itself and most on the Republican side are spite-driven pricks who want to tear down traditions merely because they are cherished by the conservatives. Unless people actively want it, and given that it is actually a triviality compared to the powers issue, such a reform is not worth the trouble.

Hung parliaments like this are rare - the last one was in 1940 - so my thoughts are that we should just grit our teeth and bear the current situation as it is, keep an eye on the long term goals (philosophic change of the culture, letting politics take care of itself as a causal consequence), and using that to guide present action. This means, for instance, were I a Member of the House of Representatives for the Liberals I'd rather support Labor in office by not voting against Ms Gillard in a no-confidence motion, to the point of ignoring the stern words of the whips, though still voting against Labor's bills as my own judgement finds appropriate and so defanging her and her ilk, than permit the Greens or those three independents to wield the balance of power in the House. I'd then focus primarily on what a Representative is *supposed* to be doing - representing his electorate - while also (within the bounds of propriety regarding use of government facilities for partisan purposes) being an activist for reason.

Edit: just today a new poll came out showing that support for Republicanism has fallen to a new low. The blather is that it's about the pap of weddings and how William is a heart-throb etc, but I rather suspect it is more about distrust of those who make such a big issue out of it. I've always been of that opinion, and I remain on their side.


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