October 06, 2013

Horse 1549 - Parties, Factionalism and The Head Of State

I've now written about retaining the Monarchy in Horse 511, Horse 1179 and Horse 1500, and on all three occasions I arrived at a different facet as to why the current system should be retained. The events of this month though have provided me with yet another one by way of example and that is the question of what can go horribly wrong.

If we look to the country that likes to style itself as the world's greatest democracy, we find that like most single-member constituent parliamentary systems it tends to follow Duverger's law and provide the voter with only two real choices (see Les Partis Politiques - 1951) if in fact they actually are choices. The problem with this is that often the spirit of factionalism is so strong that it stands in the way of government being done at all.
So firmly entrenched are both sides in the United States that neither of them bothered to think up a way out of the predicament and the whole government having crashed through the hedge of government shutdown is now hurtling at a great rate of speed towards defaulting on government debt. Although nobody's sure of where this cart is headed, they do know that if it crashes, the results will not be pretty.

-even Meggs and Benny have more idea of where they're headed

The obvious question then, is why would I choose to defend an institution which as the writers of the Declaration of Independence of the nation which is now hurtling towards debt default, framed as "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny"?

The United States in the course of electing a President has since 1796, elected a person to that position who was a member of a political party. The sole exception was George Washington, of whom it must be said was neither particularly enamoured with the game of politics; nor really an active participant.

Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
- George Washington, originally published 19 Sep 1796

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
- John Adams, Letter to Jonathan Jackson, 2 Oct 1780

I just think that the concept of factionalism (which is formalised and even strengthened with the codification of political parties) is just a natural consequence of human nature. Paul even wrote about the problem of factionalism to the Corinthian church in the year 54; Suetonius speaks constantly of factionalism in "The Twelve Caesars" which was written in 121, so it's not like it's a terribly new idea.
The most obvious solution then to the final say in the operations of a bicameral legislature, is to have someone in that position who is both apolitical and has the power to dissolve the legislature if it should prove unworkable.
Currently in Australia, the Governor-General fulfills both of those functions and has exercised them on occasion from both the advice of the sitting Prime Minister and in the case of the crisis in 1975, acted with suggestion from the Opposition leader.

The problem with even having an elected head of state apart from the fact that then creates a mandate for them to actually wield their power, is that the mechanism by which anyone gets elected to public office must invariably require at least a degree of political organisation to install them.
If you have a party who controls both house but a "President" for want of a better word who doesn't like the legislation which they are then asked to sign into law, under what conditions would they be allowed to wield their right to veto?
Of course the other side of the coin can just as easily be argued. A monarchy which almost by definition is likely to be traditionally conservative in nature because they're unlikely to want to vote to disband or remove their own power, although formally and perhaps politically unbiased, still wields a right of veto. Again, if they are asked to sign into law legislation which they do not like or approve of, under what conditions should  they be allowed to wield their right to veto? Again the truth is quite murky.

The extent of the Queen and Prince Charles's secretive power of veto over new laws has been exposed after Downing Street lost its battle to keep information about its application secret.
Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals' little-known power to consent to or block new laws. They also reveal the power has been used to torpedo proposed legislation relating to decisions about the country going to war.
- The Guardian, 15 Jan 2013

The Queen in the UK Parliament it seems has at least a crystallised reason in some cases to use the power of veto but would an Australian President be logically even be able to do the same thing? And if the executive of the nation is removed from the elected members of the House of Representatives like it is currently, and becomes under the direct appointment of President like the United States, then wouldn't the problems currently facing that nation merely be imported here?

The current President of Ireland, Michael Higgins was at one stage the President of the Labour Party or Ireland. Likewise the current Bundespräsident, Joachim Gauck who was appointed by parliament and not the people, still had to gain the consensus of a rainbow coalition of parties which included the CDU, the CSU, the FDP, the SPD and the Greens.
What I ask is that if either by direct election of the people as in Ireland or by appointment by a majority of parliament, to what degree is the position of the final say of legislation politicised by the operation of political parties, even if they stand as a non-partisan candidate?

What we've seen in the United States over the last week is an outworking of party politics at its worst. Both sides of the Congress really really despise each other for no good reason other than playing political games.

Currently the US Government has in the House of Representatives:
232 Republican members & 200 Democrat members.
Currently the US Government has in the Senate:
52 Democrat members & 46  Republican members.

Think about this - there is a Democrat president who if he wants legislation to pass, must get if past a hostile lower house before a friendly upper house before he can sign it into law. Assuming that Mitt Romney had won the 2012 election, he would have faced a friendly lower house but an hostile upper house before he could sign a bill into law.
Unlike Australia, there is no mechanism to dissolve the US Congress even if, which on this case it has most certainly proven, to be utterly unworkable. Washington's warning of alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, is now living fact; being played out and with a national debt more than 223,333 times bigger than the debt which the Union assumed when Washington became President.

I'm not entirely sure that the election of the head of state in Australia would necessarily improve the workability of the parliament. If there was a President who was of a different political colour to the government, I'm reasonably sure that the rules would first require them to formally suspend or resign any membership that they had with all political parties before their appointment; so on that front it's probably fine. On the other hand, would an elected president even feel morally able if the need arose to do what Sir John Kerr did in 1975? I'm pretty sure that that decision was correct but probably wouldn't have been even been able to have been made if he had been elected by the people or by a mechanism similar to the President of Germany.

What I do know is that the politicisation of the position of the President of the United States, has in its way contributed to the complete and utter failure of the US Government to do its job; that is govern. It was warned about more than 200 years ago and human nature being what it is, will ensure that this problem will happen again.

No comments: