October 20

By-election rage

One of four uneccessary by-elections in New South Wales yesterday was caused by a 41 year old failed health minister who will go on to a lifetime $100,000 plus taxpayer funded pension. The voters have sent the same message as those in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. They are fed up with the abuse too many politicians indulge in. That’s why Australians will never agree to a politicians’ republic.

Whether it is unnecessary early general elections, politicians resigning early because it suits them, the excessive retirement benefits which strugglers can only dream about, accessing superannuation well before the age at which anyone else can, defaming law abiding citizens behind parliamentary privilege as the Federal Minister for Finance has, the political class has gone too far.  

Glen Milne ( Sunday Telegraph, print version only, 19 October, 2008)  says the federal government has already booked December TV advertisements as part of an expensive unvetted advertising campaign promoting its $10.4 billion taxpayer funded stimulus package.

But before the election the Prime Minister promised to have these vetted first by the Auditor General, ending this rort indulged in hitherto by all parties.

One of the speakers at ACM’s recent Perth conference, Joseph Poprzeczny, the well known business journalist,  argued that the people should be empowered against the politicians through CIR’s , citizen initiated referenda.  

We shall feature this in the next issue of The Defender. ACM of course has no position on the general issue of CIR’s, but we do ask why the politicians want to give people a vote on something about which they are not interested when they could be given a vote on say, politicians retirement benefits and what should be done to discourage unnecessary by elections.

But rather than fewer elections, perhaps there should be more. Certainly, four year terms have not delivered what the politicians and the media commentators promised: improved government.

We have argued here that there may be a place for “recall” elections.

 …reserve powers….

 This is because the  exercise of one of the reserve powers of the Crown, the power to dismiss a prime minister or premier, or more accurately withdraw their commission, will always be controversial.


The crisis in 1975, which Sir David Smith rightly categorises as a political and not a constitutional crisis, was the product of two politicians unwilling to compromise.

 The Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam had in opposition asserted that any prime minister refused supply by the Senate should resign. 

As Sir David has meticulously detailed, Mr Whitlam and his party had frequently tried to persuade the minority parties to refuse supply and thus bring down a government. So had he done in 1975 what he had preached consistently in his years in opposition, there would have been no crisis.  

And had the then Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Fraser waited until the next election, he would have enjoyed a victory untainted by accusations that he had behaved shamefully.

Their actions forced Sir John Kerr to act.

The extraordinary aspect of 1975 was that both politicians tried to shift the blame for their own acts on to the Crown.

Mr Whitlam did so immediately; Mr. Fraser did so later when he converted to republicanism. Many in the media joined them in their attempts to rewrite history.

It is little wonder, then, that a Canadian constitutional scholar has asked whether the Crown could easily absorb another such crisis, “however justifiable the Governor’s decisions might be from a purely legal point of view”.

 Could this imperil the future exercise of this reserve power?  Is it a wasting asset? 
So the solution may well be through allowing  “recall” elections.  

… over rigid party discipline… 

 These are  typically a three stage process, with the final two stages taken simultaneously.  The first stage is a petition for a recall election in an electorate signed within a prescribed time by a minimum percentage of electors, say, 10 or 12%.  

This is followed by a vote open to all electors to determine whether an election should be held. For convenience a ballot for the election is held at the same time, although this could subsequently be found to have been unnecessary.

 The recall election has been adapted to a Westminster parliamentary system, that of the Canadian province, British Columbia.

In practice, successful recall elections are rare, but it is arguable that if this mechanism had been available in Australia in 1975, the opposition would have concentrated on investigating its availability rather than in refusing supply. The legitimacy of its use, successful or not, would be difficult to challenge.

This is in no way a proposal to remove, amend, codify or reduce the reserve power to withdraw the prime minister’s or premier’s commission. This power would still exist and would remain available for use against an errant head prime minister or premier. 

 The attraction of the recall election is that it is not inconsistent with the Burkian concept that democracy under the Westminster system is not direct but representative.

 Edmund Burke expressed this principle succinctly:  “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it you your opinion.”     This proposal for  a provision for recall elections may thus be distinguished from other proposals  for direct democracy and which involve initiatives by the citizenry, usually known as CIR’s , Citizen Initiated Referenda. 

As these are intended to have direct legislative effect, they involve an exception to the Burkian principle.The answer by supporters of CIR’s could well be that the rigid Australian party system – far more rigid than in the UK, has put paid to the Burkian prinicple.Voters no longer choose a representative for his or her opinions.

They get the decisions which result from factional deals in the majority party, which are enforced by the threat of expulsion or loss of endorsement if you dare cross the floor.


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