August 21

“Ladies & Gentlemen, The President…” Part 5


It was obvious. Once the candidates’ names were published the division among the republicans could no longer be hidden. Just recently they were beside themselves when Sir Zelman Cowen expressed a preference for the minimalist model proposed by Paul Keating. No one paid much attention to his second preference-our existing Constitution! Above all, Sir Zelman is utterly opposed to a President elected by the people.
Senator Ray has just let the cat out of the bag over that. Minimalism involves the politicians electing the President. Worse, there’ll only be one candidate! And we thought that sort of election went out with the collapse of the Soviet Union! The Australian people will never accept this.

Why? They know it requires a deal be made between politicians beforehand. Like the Kirribilli House Agreement which was kept secret and known only to the President of the ACTU and a big businessman! Under it the Prime Minister and Treasurer agreed who would get the top job-after the election. We, the people, weren’t told. Politics is, after all, all about deals. Deals between factions, deals between parties. Their travel scheme, their superannuation differs vastly from every one else’s. Why? The answer is obvious.
I mean no disrespect, but look at some of the extraordinary choices which result from deals. Senator Colston, after all suddenly became Deputy President of the Senate! Under the minimalist model, a political trade-in is likely to get the job of President.
As the TV ads say, there’s more. As Supreme Court Justice Handley said, the proponents of minimalism are either ignorant or irresponsible. The Crown is central to our constitution-as it is to Canada and New Zealand. The whole point of the system is not the powers the Crown has, but the powers it denies to the politicians. Remove the Crown and the new Presidents (there will be seven!) get the powers and will be almost impossible to remove during their terms. The Presidents won’t be subject to the conventions which require the Governors to behave as everybody expects. If we must be a republic, we have to gut the constitution or write a new one. Tie the seven Presidents down. But the great powers of the Crown now held in trust for the people will slip away. Into the hands of the politicians.
Either way, the minimalist model or direct election we get a politician. Without other substantial change, we will create a Presidency similar to that of France. And what was Jacques Chirac’s first decision? Without even asking parliament. Les essaies nucleares! Bomb Tahiti! just as well we don’t have nuclear weapons.
Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders and the British share something rare and precious. A long unbroken tradition of democracy. Canadians don’t lie awake at night worrying about. They know who their constitutional head of state is. They respect the Queen of Canada. So does President Clinton when he toasted her.

An eminent Canadian lawyer, Professor Edward McWhinney, put it in context when he said that "Anyone who fought this issue in Canada would be dismissed as an ‘incompetent obsessed with trivia’."
(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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