September 24

The perils of presidentialism

In an essay in The New York Times on 16 July, 2006, ‘The Time of the Presidents’, Gary Rosen asks an interesting question. Were he still around, what would Tsar Peter the Great think of the Group of 8 summit meeting being held, at the time Mr. Rosen was writing, in the Tsar’s imperial capital, St Petersburg? Would he find any kindred autocratic spirits there?

Mr. Rosen says that as  democracy spread across the world in recent decades, rising from 66 countries in 1987 to 122 in 2005, he warns that it has exposed as never before the ‘difficulty of getting executive power right.’ While government by the people is a stirring slogan, he says, it doesn’t tell you how government should perform its essential tasks.  He asks who can be trusted with the necessary authority. Indeed. Our constitutional system hedges the executive with checks and balances, including that of the Crown, without making government impossible or destabilizing the country. Only the foolish would change this, unless it were to improve the system.

In the early 1990’s, he recalls that the political scientist Juan Linz of Yale, a leading scholar on democratization, warned of the “perils of presidentialism.” Professor Linz , he argued that presidents  made for a “winner take all” politics and tended to see themselves in dangerously “‘plebiscitarian” terms as the living embodiment of the nation’s will and deepest interests. This is exactly the same point made by Walter Bagehot in relation to the choice of constitutional model when Canada was being formed . Professor  Linz argued that the  accountable prime ministers under the Westminster model represented a safer institutional alternative.

Australians rejected the politician’s republic in 1999, notwithstanding a massive campaign in its favour, dominated by the media , and a large number of politicians. The republican movement now claims it has no model. Instead it proposes an expensive and convoluted plebiscitarian process. According to the republican constitutional lawyer, Professor Greg Craven, this process could only result in one model being put to the people, one where the president, wielding the powers of the Governor-General is elected by the people .




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