Improving our political system.

John Kilcullen August 2022

See 2004 page.

An Australian Head of State

1. The future of the Republican Movement
It would not be a good idea to follow a
“two-stage” decision process, with a question “Do you want an Australian Head of State”, expecting an affirmative, and then some time later a referendum on the “model” worked out for implementing the affirmative. This is not a good idea because there is likely to be serious disagreement about the model, and people who think it likely that what they regard as the wrong model would be adopted for the second stage will vote NO at the first stage – thinking better the status quo than something they object to.

2. The concern many people (including me) have about the “model” is that we don’t want the Australian political system to become like the US system. There is much less danger of this than there was twenty years ago. What we do not want is an elected head of state with a fixed term, and a Congress also with a fixed term, with no mechanism by which deadlocks within the Congress, or between Congress and President, can be resolved by going to an early election (in which the electorate resolves the issue). See my comparison of the Australian and US political systems and discussion of their shortcomings.

There is a case for restricting the power of a Prime Minister to call an election just whenever it is politically advantageous. Legislation (not a constitutional amendment, but ordinary legislation) could be modelled on section 24B of the NSW constitution.

2. Though a two-stage constitutional amendment process would not be a good idea, there should be another two-stage process: first, there should be ordinary legislation regarding the selection and powers of the Governor General (still representing the monarchy); and second, after that legislation has been in force for some time, a constitutional referendum to remove references to the monarchy.

3. On the selection of the GG: At present the Government chooses someone to nominate to the King, who makes the appointment. Legislation could specify a process for selecting the person to be nominated – say some sort of nomination committee (including non-politicians, perhaps not including politicians) to report to Parliament, and then the Government would nominate to the King the person the selection committee had selected. Or (though I would not support this) the person to be nominated could be chosen by popular vote. After the constitutional referendum to delete the monarcy, the nomination process would become the appointment process.

4. On the powers of the GG: Parliament could legislate an “Act to formalise certain conventions relating to the ministry”. The Act need not attempt to spell out everything the GG may and may not do. It would be enough to spell out some things, especially things a GG should not do. Among these:

·       Executive acts of the Governor General must be agreed to by the Prime Minister, i.e. the person in whom the House of Representatives has most recently expressed confidence as head of the Government

·       The Governor-General must not refuse to dissolve the House of Representatives, and (in accordance with section 57 of the Constitution) the Senate, if advised to do so by the Prime Minister. (The consent of the Cabinet, Party Room or Parliament is not required: dissolution is on the advice of the Prime Minister alone.)

·       The GG must not grant a dissolution to a recently-commissioned PM until he or she has been confirmed in office by a vote of confidence by the House of Representatives.

·       The GG must promptly gazette all appointments he or she has made, including appointments to ministries.

What is to be included in this list and how it is to be worded will of course require much discussion.

5. Do we need a head of state distinct from the Prime Minister? Sections 39-48 of the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 show how it might be possible to “automate” some of the functions of the Governor General. But perhaps not all: the ACT Self-Government Act section 16 gives the GG (as advised by the Federal Government) power to dissolve the Assembly short-of-term. Early dissolution is an essentially political act, which should perhaps not be entrusted entirely to one person. Another reason for having a head of state separate from the PM is that it seems desirable to symbolise the subordination of the political head to someone representing the community at large.


Improving Parliament

Single-member constituencies are, in my opinion, an important cause of the inadequacies of Australian politics.

In the Senate we have multi-member constituencies and a version of Proportional Representation. This could easily be improved by the introduction of Robson Rotation. Voters who have no preferences among the candidates of a party and simply vote down the party list of Senate candidates should not be counted as if they had expressed a preference among those candidates. “Robson rotation” distributes such votes equally among the candidates. Which of them then gets elected is determined by voters who do have a preference among the candidates. In effect a “primary” is built into the ordinary election.

At some time Section 15 of the Australian Constitution should be deleted and replaced by a provision that a vacancy is filled by count-back.

Robson Rotation could be introduced into House of Representatives elections even while there are single-member constituencies. See my 2010 submission to JSCEM  

However the full benefit of proportional representation needs multi-member constituencies in the House of Representatives. See point 11 in my 2004 submission to JSCEM.