August 21

“Ladies & Gentlemen, The President…” Part 1


Picture it. It’s 2001 and Australia is celebrating the centenary of Federation. A vast motorcade with a mounted police escort sweeps through the city, sirens blaring. The procession stops. The door of the largest limousine opens. There is a twenty-one gun salute. The President, a large heavy man, lumbers on to the podium. The Presidential standard is unfurled. Beside it flies the new Australian flag. It’s the Eureka Stockade flag, with the Qantas logo where the union flag once was. Qantas has, of course, sponsored the change-on the suggestion of its merchant bankers. The band strikes up the new national anthem, also sponsored "I still call Australia Home".

Presidential Decree No 1 had allowed for sponsorship of these symbols. As this was part of the presidents’ "domaine reserve" it was outside of normal auditing and taxation rules. They hit on this idea after a visit to Paris.
A scream of jets across the sky announced the flypast by the AFR, the Air Force of the Republic. (This also was sponsored, this time by a newspaper.) The President standing to attention put his right hand on his heart. "Ooh, it’s just like America. "swooned a cosmetics entrepreneur. "At last, I’m proud to be an Australian."

She was seated in the front row of a special stand for the MFR, an elite group. This was to be a sort of Legion d’honneur, the "Mothers and Fathers of the Republic", created by Presidential Decree No 2. The subscriptions were so reasonable, an enrolment fee of $25 000 and an annual fee of $10 000. Of course, you had to be invited to join.
As the planes disappeared over the skyline, the President thought of that day when he told the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition that he wanted to be the first president. They were taken aback. But what could they do?
He’d been a member of both their parties. If they forced him out of Parliament, he would spill the beans on every rort since he first came there. Hadn’t he always done everything the party wanted? Why did they deny him preselection? He’d only been there twelve years, twelve long years of faithful service. Well, there were problems, but his leaders had sensibly swept them under the carpet. Then he’d joined the other party But they had dropped him too. The Opposition wanted his seat to replenish their numbers, the Government wanted to get some crucial bills through. Well, they both eventually agreed. "It’s only a ceremonial post. Let him have this bauble," they said.
The amended constitution said there was only to be one candidate for President and the Prime Minister would make the nomination. "Isn’t that too much like a one party dictatorship?", asked one young Parliamentary Secretary. He was told, once again, not to rock the boat. The nomination had to be approved by a two-thirds majority at a joint sitting. "You’ve got to do a deal with the Opposition", said one minister. So the opposition agreed to let the government’s bills through, providing they appointed their choice as President . "Don’t worry, he’ll keep quiet. Let him open fetes and visit the UN. We’ll still run the country," they said.
The nomination was kept secret until the joint meeting. The media had drawn up a list of predictions. The favourites included an Aboriginal woman leader, a former Chief Justice, a champion swimmer and an Australian born actor who lived in America.

How astonished they were when the Prime Minister stood up and made the nomination – "Mr Speaker, Mr President of the Senate. Under the terms of the constitution, it is my honour and my privilege to nominate Thomas Buckingham to be President of the Federal Republic of Australia."
The Leader of the Opposition seconded the nomination.
An independent proposed that the matter be referred to an ad hoc committee with power to conduct public hearings.
The Government and Opposition gagged the independent. The nomination was approved. The President’s daydreaming was abruptly interrupted. His aide was handing a speech to him. It was long and rambling. They had tried to keep him to the script but he believed he was a good orator.
He was surrounded by the State President-Governors. He was pleased to see a woman among them, famous for her tireless work in exposing child abuse in NSW She deserved it. After all, didn’t that historian describe republicanism as her brainchild? That both the State Opposition and Government were desperate to get rid of her was beside the point.
Much later, the President retired to his study in the newly built Presidential Palace. He called for the Presidential travel consultant. They discussed the coming state tour of the United States and the UK. He and his personal entourage would take up all the seats on the new Boeing, now named "AFR One". This, too, was sponsored – "How many frequent flyer points will I get for this?", asked the President. "And incidentally, have the sponsors paid up?"
Later, he saw his PC, an eminent Presidential Counsel (as QC’s were now to be called). As the PC bowed low, he enquired, ‘Just how secure is my position, counsellor?"
"Most secure, Your Excellency. Indeed I would add, if Your Excellency permits, your position is impregnable. You choose the government, you are Commander-in-Chief, you may veto legislation, you appoint the High Court. But if I may say so, I am sure the politicians will see reason."
‘Very good, Counsellor, very good", said the President as he headed toward the Presidential Audience Room where he would sit on the great Chair of the Republic to receive the Diplomatic Corps. The Chair was based on a design of a throne once used by Napoleon. A gift from France. A corporate logo entwined into the Presidential crest indicated an additional sponsor’s name.
"I wonder how many state visits I’ll be able to drum up from this lot," he mused.

Too far fetched, dear reader? And what happened in New Zealand when they approved a new voting system? Much more democratic, they were told. When they voted to throw out the Nationals, there was utter confusion for months. And then a National-NZ First coalition! It’s as if the 1983 election led to a government led by Mr Fraser, or the 1996 election led by Mr Keating. Too far fetched? just think back over some of the parliamentary appointments over the years. And consider the lives of some of the Presidents of France.
(Note: These papers were prepared in the context of the first version of the Keating-Turnbull republic 1993-1998. This model was superseded by the second version which was unveiled in the last days of the 1998 Constitutional Convention.)


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