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Advancing democracy

By Philip Howell - posted Monday, 3 December 2012


With the prospect of a change of Government next year, and the possibility it will face a hostile Senate, my thoughts turn to 1975.

Australia has never faced up to the truth about 1975 - that our Constitution failed.

A Constitution is supposed to guarantee the continuation of stable Government. In 1975, the Senate was legally entitled to block the supply of money to the Government. The Government was legally entitled to govern while it held a majority in the House of Representatives. So with each side doing what it was legally entitled to do, the result was a stalemate and the imminent breakdown of Government.

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We know how the crisis was 'resolved' - by jettisoning democracy. This was not inevitable. The Governor-General could have said publicly: 'I will never dismiss a Government while it holds a majority in the House.' The Senate would have had no option but to back down. That would have been the democratic approach. But democracy is optional under our Constitution.

So under our system, if the minority which lost the last election controls the Senate, it can - with a compliant Governor-General - arbitrarily reduce the majority's term in office. It can force a new election for the House without itself facing election. What chance is there that this will happen to the next Liberal / National Government? Perhaps Labor and the Greens will look kindly on that nice Mr Abbott. Or perhaps not.

It is better of course that we don't wait to find out. We have the chance of moving to a better system now.

The better system is the Advancing Democracy model I have outlined at www.advancingdemocracy.info. Those who support putting it to a referendum can vote to do so in an online petition - No Queen by 2015 - at http://www.communityrun.org/petitions/no-queen-by-2015.

Advancing Democracy prevents another 1975 style crisis by requiring Governments to be chosen by the House of Representatives. If we elect our representatives, and a House of those representatives chooses the Government, why should we allow anyone else - whether a Queen or a president - to change that decision? The only reason this 'reserve power' exists at present is because it used to in the past, when the King chose the Government. A democracy should not recognise an historical anachronism as a legitimate source of power. The allocation of power should be based on democratic principles, the most important of which is that the majority governs. This principle is omitted from our Constitution at present. Advancing Democracy remedies the omission.

Two legal powers were preconditions for the 1975 dismissal. By transferring to the House the power to appoint the Government, the second relevant power - that of the Senate over supply - can remain unchanged. The power can be used to reject money bills with which the Senate does not agree. But it could not be used to remove a Government.

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Advancing Democracy therefore abolishes the principal source of political instability - the Crown - all of whose powers are limitations on democracy. Most of our vague constitutional conventions exist to restrain the power of the Crown. They will disappear along with the monarchy, leaving only the new democratic rules inserted in the Constitution.

Advancing Democracy does not create a presidency. Forget about imitating other countries. We can do better.

The new Head of State will be a Governor-General of Parliament who replaces the Speaker. A Deputy will replace the Senate president. Both will have enhanced powers to control debate. It makes Parliament workable, by providing an independent, impartial person to chair all debates. The Governor-General will not continue his or her present role. He or she will do something useful instead, ensuring that all sides play by the rules in Parliament.

And the state which the Governor-General of Parliament serves will not be called a republic. The name Commonwealth has more meaning. It expresses something we all feel at some time - that we should strive for the common good.

There is a full explanation on the web site. The Rationale contains the political justification for the proposal. The Proposed Constitution is there, ready for submission to a referendum. Its legal drafting is explained in a Drafting Principles section, supported by detailed legal notes. Read as much or as little as you want.

Since 1975, we have never had the opportunity to vote for a better system. Isn't it time we had that chance?

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This is an extended version of a letter to the editor published in the December 2012 edition of the Law Society Journal, NSW



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About the Author

Philip Howell is a solicitor in western Sydney and the author of the Advancing Democracy proposal.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Howell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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