Scott Morrison’s election win saved Australia from many perils: from much higher and even more wasteful government spending; much higher taxes on our most productive people; more damage to our economy from the climate cult; more union power; more asylum seeker boats; and more identity politics – plus, by no means the least damaging item in Labor’s policy platform – a sneak attack on the constitution.
Bill Shorten had promised a two-stage process for turning Australia into a republic: stage one was to be a plebiscite, asking people whether or not they wanted ‘an Australian head of state’; stage two, coming only after the legitimacy of the existing arrangements had been undermined by a ‘yes’ vote to the principle of becoming a republic, was to be an actual referendum on a specific republican model. Clearly, Shorten and the republican movement wanted to pre-empt the hard question – exactly what sort of a republic would work better than the existing system – by asking an emotive question first. Attempting to ‘backdoor’ the established mechanisms for constitutional change showed Labor’s desperation, while the silence of many senior Liberals suggested their connivance too.
Just how difficult it would be to improve on a governor-general representing the Queen in any constitutional change to an entirely politically-appointed-and-removed president was on display in the argument over Malcolm Turnbull’s alleged attempt to use the governor-general as a human shield against a leadership challenge. As Paul Kelly reported two weeks ago, Turnbull told Attorney-General Christian Porter that Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove would refuse to commission Peter Dutton as prime minister if his leadership challenge succeeded; because, Turnbull alleged, Sir Peter would be of the view that Dutton was ineligible to sit in the parliament under section 44 of the Constitution, due to his part-interest in a child care centre receiving subsidies from the Commonwealth. Turnbull’s claimed assertion aside, there is no evidence whatsoever that this was actually the governor-general’s view. It would have been improper of a prime minister to have advised a governor-general that a rival might be disqualified from sitting in parliament, especially when that prime minister had made no move to refer the rival to the High Court for an eligibility ruling. It would have been improper of a governor-general to have expressed a view about the eligibility of an MP to sit in the parliament when that is the court’s responsibility. It would have been improper of a governor-general not to commission as prime minister someone reasonably thought to have the confidence of the House of Representatives; or at least to allow the party-in-government’s nominee to be commissioned for the purpose of testing his support. And it was squalid, almost beyond belief, if the reports are accurate, that a prime minister should have sought to verbal a governor-general in his attempt to bully an attorney-general over seeking advice from a solicitor-general about an MP’s eligibility.
But then, Malcolm Turnbull was never one to let manners or legal nicety get in the way of ambition. He had, after all, allegedly out-stacked Liberal party branches to become Member for Wentworth, back-stabbed and allegedly leaked his way to becoming opposition leader, before machinating all over again to become prime minister.
More fool those in the party room who fell for him, not once but twice; they owe their party, and the nation, an apology. The main point here, though, is not Turnbull’s apparent readiness to ride roughshod over propriety and due process in order to hang onto the prime ministership that he thought was his by right. It’s not the constitutional crisis he appears to have been prepared to incite in order to sabotage a rival. It’s how much easier it would have been for someone like him to have got away with constitutional vandalism had Australia been a republic.
The republic that was put to the people in the 1999 constitutional referendum sought to turn the governor-general into a president with exactly the same powers. But instead of being, like the governor-general, appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister, the president would have been nominated by the prime minister and endorsed by a two-thirds majority of the Commonwealth parliament. This requirement would give such a president more political authority than the governor-general has now. As well, instead of being, like the governor-general, dismissible by the Queen on the advice of the prime minister, the president would be instantly dismissible by the prime minister alone. In other words, the president – under this ‘bi-partisan’ republican model – would have been more political than the governor-general, but with far less security of tenure.
Quite apart from the fact that the conventions surrounding the Crown (and the governor-general representing the Crown), built up over centuries at Westminster as well as almost 120 years of constitutional practice here in Australia, would not automatically translate to a president, it would be almost impossible to codify them without changing them in subtle but significant ways. Importantly, a prime minister who wanted to bully the president would have the power of instant dismissal to back up his threats. Does anyone think that a prime minister like Turnbull would not ruthlessly exploit the power of dismissal to try to get his way? As well, under the previous republican proposal, there’d be a big risk that the two-thirds majority requirement for appointment would produce pliable consensus-seekers as president, rather than distinguished citizens who never sought the job but accepted it as their final act of service to the country. As has been the case with all of our recent governors-general.
When the republic boosters return once again, it is possible that in order to maximise popular support, they will promise a president directly elected by the people and only removable by a process akin to impeachment in the US.
But that could create an executive presidency, American-style, and at the very least, set up a potential political rival to the prime minister making effective government even more complicated. Almost certainly, therefore, the kind of presidency that Australia could eventually get would resemble the presidency that Turnbull once proposed – and would ruthlessly have exploited had he been able. Australians should never forget how he got the job; and how he left it.
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