Saturday, 3 March 2012

Australian Politics, American Style

In the rush to congratulate Julia Gillard on the coup of enticing Bob Carr to take on the role of Foreign Minister, no-one seems to have noticed that this is another sign of the Americanisation of Australian politics.  Even conservative critics are lauding the choice of Carr, one of the most able and intelligent men in Australian politics.  They are also, albeit sometimes backhandedly, expressing admiration for the fact that Gillard was able to assert her authority, over some apparent cabinet resistance, to make it happen.


Here in Queensland we are in mid-election, and the man most likely to become our next Premier is not even a member of the current parliament, running a Presidential campaign which, almost as a sidelight, includes the need to win his own electorate.  I've been whingeing about this issue for a while, so let me do so again in relation to Carr's appointment.

The issue is not whether Carr will make a good Foreign Minister.  Chances are he will, although he may not get to be one for long.  The point is that this is not how our political system is meant to operate.  The Westminster system which we have largely borrowed from our Bristish forebears is substantially different to the American presidential system.

The Americans have, in effect, two electoral processes.  One elects a set of local and state-based representatives to sit in Congress and vote on legislation.  The other elects the Head of State, the President, who then appoints the executive - the Secretaries of State (equivalent to our Ministers) who oversee the various departments and policy areas involved in running the country.  These secretaries are hand-picked by the President and can come from anywhere, it's entirely up to him.  However, they are accountable to congress in that all legislation has to be approved there.

In the Westminster system, of course, we don't elect our Head of State, she inherited that role from her father and will pass it on to her son if she ever gets around to dying.  However, these unelected leaders essentially play a cermonial role, and the actual decision-making is vested in the parliament.  After each election the majority in Parliament gets to form a government, including appointing some of their number to be Ministers of State including the Prime Minister.  The Executive is not separate from the parliament, it is a subset of it. 

The key to this is that it is a 100% representative process.  Ordinary voters elect local members of parliament and State-based senators.  These in turn elect their leaders.  Until recently the Labor members of parliament elected the ministry, with the leader then allocating the portfolios.  It was Kevin Rudd who demanded this be changed in 2007 to allow him the right to choose his own cabinet.  Rudd's hazy grasp of democratic decision-making was a key reason his Labor colleagues ousted him in 2010, so it has been ironic to watch Rudd promise to restore the right of Caucus to elect ministers during his leadership challenge, and then Gillard spend the week after her re-election recruiting a senior minister from outside the parliament.

Gillard is of course exploiting a loophole.  The surprise resignation of Mark Arbib from the Senate opened up a vacancy.  Casual vacancies in the Senate are not filled by election, they are technicaly filled by the government of the state that Senator represented.  Following the flagrant but legal abuse of this process in Queensland by Joh Bjelke-Peterson in 1975 the law was clarified to ensure that the replacement came from the same party as the retiring Senator.  This means that in reality the NSW Labor Party gets to appoint Arbib's replacement. 

Yet Carr's nomination by NSW Labor is a fiction.  It is President Gillard who has approached Carr with the offer to become Foreign Minister (oh and by the way, also NSW Senator since Ministers have to be members of parliament) and imposed her choice on the NSW party and on her own Cabinet colleagues.  Although Steven Smith, who wanted the job himself, aparently complained bitterly, in the end they all let her do it because they couldn't afford to embarrass her so soon after her thumping re-election as Labor leader.  In doing so, they have allowed her to step so far outside the bounds of her authority that it is absurd.

I often joke about these things, but actually I find it depressing.  First, neither our leaders, nor our media, nor apparently most voters, seem to really understand how the system is supposed to work.  Secondly, they don't seem to care.  Elections, representation, accountability?  That's not real leadership!

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