October 27

French lesson for Australian elites


The elite groups pushing for constitutional change in Australia are extraordinarily careless of the consequences of their plans, which are now kept under wraps.

Recent events in France illustrate the danger.

When it comes to changing our constitutional system, too many of the elites are driven by a single obsession. All they are interested in is getting rid of the Crown. It is certainly not about improving governance.

Most of the self styled ”conservative “ republicans think that the only danger is in a directly elected president destabilising our  Westminster system.

This is wrong. Every republican model produced so far would have seriously destabilised the system. As the late Professor P.H.Lane – one of our greatest constitutional lawyers – used to say, the republicans should give up trying to graft a politicians’ republic onto our monarchical Constitution. They should start again.

The original Keating Turnbull model which the conservative republicans pushed would have been as destabilising as the one where the president is directly elected.

This original model involved a president elected and removable by a two thirds vote in parliament.

The problem they could not see was that the president would enjoy the apparently vast powers of the Governor-General, without the constraints provided by the constitutional monarchy.

This would have had destabilised our system, and we said so. So did Richard McGarvie who advocated a most minimalist republican model.

…French lesson…

The French Fifth Republic demonstrates how correct we were. It did not begin with direct election. It was the power and tenure that the presidency enjoyed which turned it into the dominant institution it has become.

But trying to mix this with the Westminster system has made the Fifth Republic inherently unstable.  It has come close to collapse more than once in the half century of its existence. Our Federal Commonwealth under the Crown never has, nor have the six autonomous self governing colonies whose people took the decision to federate.

President Sarkozy’s 23-year old university student son announced on 23 October that he was withdrawing from the race to become the head of a A$200 million-a-year public agency amid widespread allegations of nepotism.

The Times’ Paris correspondent Charles Bremner writes (23/10) that this sort of is event is an occupational hazard. He says that France’s Fifth Republic President tends to fall victim to “the court reflex”.

…no check or balance to worry about…

They acquire “a sense of omnipotence that comes with the isolation of the most powerful executive post in the democratic world,” he writes. In contrast to the White House, the Elysée Palace “has no check or balance to worry about.”

The President is “boss of the judiciary and parliament too, except in unusual circumstances.” Mr. Bremner is no doubt referring to what is called “cohabitation” where the opposition controls the National Assembly and the prime minister does not come from his party.

Mr. Bremner says a French President suffers from the fact that courtiers tell him what he wants to hear.

….presidential excess…

  He cites three examples of presidential excess:-

  • “President Mitterrand abused his powers in the 1980s by keeping a secret second family at great public expense and by creating a unit to spy on rivals, opponents and the actresses he fancied.”
  • “Before him, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing developed regal pretensions and tripped when he accepted a gift of diamonds from the self-crowned Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa.”
  • “Jacques Chirac, the last President, enjoyed immunity from sleaze allegations.” 

Mr. Bremner says Mr Sarkozy came to office promising the end of the elite, and promotion of the principle of honest reward for honest work. But while Presidents Chirac and Mitterrand gave staff jobs to sons and daughters, “ none benefited from such unvarnished nepotism as Jean Sarkozy, or Le fiston a piston — the lad with pull — as he is known.”

He says this incident is being compared in Paris with Giscard d’Estaing’s diamond error. “That was an act which, though trivial, stained his image permanently and impeded his re-election.”  

That incidentally did not stop Giscard d’Estaing from becoming the father of the EU constitution. Although aborted in referendums in France and the Netherlands, Europe’s politicians are effectively re-imposing the Constitution by renaming it the Treaty of Lisbon.

The point to remember that Australia’s republicans have demonstrated that they are so obsessed with getting rid of the Crown, they were prepared to impose a model which would be similar to the French Fifth Republic.

If we want such a republic it should be debated openly, not imposed without the people or even the proponents being aware of the hidden consequences. The republican movement think they are being clever about this. They now hide their plans for change – even claiming they have none.




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