August 27, 2013

Horse 1536 - Just How Would We Pick A President Anyway?

In Horse 1500, I wrote a piece defending the position of the Governor-General and why I think that having a deliberately ambiguous set of powers has in practice proven to be a good thing. I want to know what would happen if Australia were to make that leap and become a republic.

Firstly it would be reasonable to assume that the people of Australia would probably wish for the President (for want of a better title) to assume the same powers that the Governor-General currently holds (even though the vast bulk of people, including the Governor-General in practice, don't actually know what they are).
I would think that this is probably the most sensible idea because it would be the least disruptive of governance and it would keep the vast bulk of the parliamentary systems which we have in place intact. The executive of the parliament would still remain in the House of Representatives and equivalent lower houses in State Parliaments like the New South Wales Legislative Council. In parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches of government are separated, it leaves the door open for the executive to be made up of people who were never elected. At least in a Westminster system, all the members of Cabinet have come from the floor of the House and therefore have been elected by someone.

Secondly, it would be reasonable to assume that, considering the main reason that that 1999 referendum failed, the people of Australia would prefer the direct election of the President.
Here we find a snag. Personally I think it would be best if the President were non-partisan and even better if they'd never been affiliated formally with any political party; however, as soon as you decide to elect anyone, the position itself becomes politicised.
One of the hard facts about politics that over time, people will naturally arrange themselves into more highly organised factions for the purposes of getting people elected; they also have the right to do so. The problem there is that concurrently with people arranging themselves into more highly organised factions, those factions which are otherwise called political parties, tend to drive out other non-affiliated candidates. 
The question then I suppose is, how do you design an election process so that it produces non-partisan candidates?

If you open up the candidacy to everyone, then its very highly likely that lots and lots and lots of people will want to run for the position. In the Senate and other upper houses to Australia Parliaments, because there is Proportional Representation you always invariably get lots of candidates. For the 2013 Senate election there are 110 candidates contesting just 12 seats. In 1999 the NSW Legislative Council had 264 candidates in 80 groups contesting 21 seats. Somewhere down the line, the threshold of madness is crossed.
- 110 candidates: not quite the 'tablecloth'

Assuming that you do open up the candidacy to everyone, then how would you whittle down the field from many to few? If you open it up to parties with only a minimum number of members, then that immediately biases the race in favour of established political candidates. If the candidacy is limited by entry fee, then it's likely that only the rich or those endorsed by political machines would ever bother to run. Is that really the best outcome?
Mind you under the current system of appointing Governors and Governors-General there is no election at all and the monarch usually acts on the advice of the sitting government of the day:
The Queen is represented in Australia at the federal level by a Governor-General. He or she is appointed by The Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister of Australia and is completely independent of the British Government. 
At the state level The Queen is represented by the Governors of each state who are appointed on the advice of each state Premier.
- from the Official Website of the British Monarchy.

The list of Governors-General includes mainly ex-soldiers and legal people, though it has included royalty and a former leader of the Labor Party and Treasurer in Bill Hayden. Perhaps because we don't really see the Governors and Governors-General act on a regular basis, we're fine with the way that the system works. Certainly all of the complaints that I've ever read with regards Australian republicanism have more to do with existence of a foreign monarchy rather than their representatives who are currently not elected.

If we were to look Ireland and India which most closely resemble the likely configuration of what a future Republic of Australia would look like, we find that Ireland has a direct election but India uses an electoral college system which is even more hideously complex than the one used to appoint the President in the United States.
I suppose that Australia could run some sort of electoral college system like the United States which would give 226 electoral college votes all up (150 + 76) but that would mean that if New South Wales and Victoria both voted the same way, they'd rack up 109 of 113 votes required* and that's sort of counter intuitive to the idea that the little states shouldn't be bullied by the big ones and the reason that the Senate exists in the way that it does. The idea is probably fine for the United States which has 50 states or India which has 28 states and 7 union territories but for Australia with only 6, it starts to look silly.

What about the idea that out of the 23 million of us, we just choose someone at random. Just feed every name on the electoral roll in the country into some giant machine and then have it spit out one name. If we appoint them for 5 years, who wouldn't want to jump at the opportunity to be President of Australia?
What would be so bad about a plumber from Perth, or an architect from Adelaide, a builder from Ballarat or a lawyer from Lithgow being made Grand-Poohbah of Australia? Billy Hughes mended umbrellas, Stanley Bruce was a barrister, Ben Chifley a train driver and Joseph Cook had been a coal miner before becoming Prime Minister. Australia has a proud history of ordinary people eventually rising through the ranks to public office, so why not just pull up one of us to the top spot. If becoming a republic is inevitable which I suspect it is, I'd rather someone who's done a real job rather than a career politician become head of state.

Personally I think that the idea of apathetic inertia is the best solution and that the system remains as is but if we absolutely must change to a republic for change's sake (and I see it as no more than this), then I'd rather that the position remain as anonymous and vague as the Governor-General. It would be best if they were elected by the people, or not elected at all and better if they weren't a politician.

Well that is what I think anyway.

*Electoral College makeup if Australia were to adopt the same logic as the US.
NSW: 48 + 12 = 60
Vic: 37 + 12 = 49
Qld: 30 + 12 = 42
WA: 15 + 12 = 27
SA: 11 + 12 = 23
Tas: 5 + 12 = 17
ACT: 2 + 2 = 4
NT: 2 + 2 = 4

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