December 5

Lessons from the Ukraine and from our election

The crisis in the Ukraine reminded me that many of the former communist states decided to adopt constitutions which graft onto the Westminster system, where governments are responsible to Parliament, the office of an elected president who shares executive powers with the Prime Minister and the government.

 This of course results in competition between the president and the Prime Minister, particularly, but not only when they come from different parties (the French call this cohabitation)

In addition , these constitutions often grant immunity to the president, which means they can avoid justice as long as they are in office, including criminal prosecutions which the authorities may wish to bring against them for crimes allegedly committed during and before their presidency. This of course encourages incumbent presidents who have problems in their past to seek further terms!

The first country to introduce this constitutional oddity was France in 1958. This was because previous experiences with an executive presidency, and two Westminster republics were unsatisfactory. (I put aside the two empires and the fascist state, as well as various revolutionary regimes the first one of which snuffed out the brief experiment with a constitutional monarchy under Louis V1 , the Bourbon restoration and the bourgeois monarchy of Louis Philippe, all during our peaceful evolution from penal colony to one of the world’s oldest democracies!)

One of the fallacies put about by conservative republicans is that the parliamentary model which the ARM first proposed – the First Keating Turnbull republic – would not have been a serious mistake. The president could only be removed on a two thirds vote.

Acknowledging that ACM was right, the republicans then changed it to the model which the people rejected in 1999, the second Keating -Turnbull Republic. By making the president instantly dismissible by the Prime Minister, he would have been a mere cipher, his discretion and reserve powers effectively neutralised.

Some republicans talk approvingly of the Irish model, which involves a powerless presidency, a weak Senate and a unitary small state part of that quasi federal structure, the EU. Hardly appropriate to a large federal Commonwealth with a powerful Senate!

But the republicans would have effectively neutralised the head of state, and made the Prime Minister more powerful in the model they put in 1999. Ted Mack believed that this was in fact their object – the republicans wanted to make the Prime Minister and the politicians more powerful. (Australians will recall Ted Mack as a politician who was so honest he resigned from the NSW and then the Federal parliament rather than accept the politicians’ superannuation which he regarded as a scandal.) 

In the meantime, so many in the commentariat, who up to the vote were telling the people how to vote in our recent election, and that the result was too close to call, are now quite confidently explaining the result.

It was interesting then to read that at least one elector was influenced by the constitutional question. Perhaps he had seen one of the many-up to one million-brochures published by ACM which were distributed, many in his state, and for which Kerry Jones was criticized because it might make people aware of the republic-which of course was its purpose.

 Mr Don Smith of Upper Kedron in Queensland wrote to The Australian about this. His letter was published on 25 November, 2004. He wrote that Mr Latham said on radio he would change our constitution, but he claimed he did not know what changes would be – just that he would change it. For Mr Smith that was dangerous talk, and he decided there and then to vote against the ALP.

ntil next time,

David Flint


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