Picking an Australian President

How to pick a President of the Republic of Australia? Start by looking towards India

Ramesh Thakur

Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia, South Asia

15 September 2015

Malcolm Turnbull, the former head of the Australian Republican Movement, is now Australia’s Prime Minister potentially moving the country a step closer to having an elected head of state. But how might that process work? Ramesh Thakur writes that India might have some insights.

The question of Australia becoming a republic seems to be coming back on the agenda, helped to no small extent by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s clumsy revival of imperial honours and the award of an ‘Australian’ knighthood to Prince Philip – just one of many captain’s picks that have seen such spectacular own goals as to make some wonder if they needed to pick a new captain, which they duly did last night. The new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is of course a former head of the Australian Republican Movement who concedes that no change is likely during the reign of the current Queen.

The debate on becoming a republic cannot be divorced from the method of choosing a president. If we wish to have an executive president, the head of state must be directly elected to confer the mantle of democratic legitimacy upon the combined office of head of government and state. For a number of reasons, presidential government is inferior to parliamentary government in general and would clash with Australia’s political culture in particular.

The alternative need not be restricted to nomination by the PM. For this particular debate, no country in the world is as close to the Australian model as India: a Westminster parliamentary democracy with a federal structure. Moreover, the system has been in operation since 1950 when India became a republic (on 26 January, no less). Considering it has worked well in Indian conditions of deep poverty, immense diversity and vast complexity, Australians should be able to adopt and operate it with relative ease.

The office of the President of the Republic of India confers status bereft of power. Under normal circumstances, the president’s powers are purely ornamental, comprising appointive, dismissive, legislative (giving assent to bills) and symbolic functions. Presidential ambitions have been circumscribed too by the method of election: chosen by legislators rather than by direct election, presidents may not challenge those who have been directly elected by the people. The president represents and symbolises the nation, but neither reigns nor rules over the country.

The discretionary latitude available to a president depends less on the office or the incumbent and more on the state of party politics. In India as in Australia, the epicentre of government is the prime minister and the cabinet, not the president. If the prime minister commands the loyalty of cabinet and the confidence of parliament, there is little scope for independent presidential initiatives.

Some powers of the president – appointment of the PM, dissolution of parliament – can acquire political significance in a fluid or uncertain environment. For example, if a general election fails to produce a party with a majority in the lower house, who deserves the right of first refusal to form government: the leader of the party with the largest number of seats even if still short of a majority, or of a coalition which together commands a majority?

This is why it is important to choose persons of trust and integrity to be the head of state.

India’s president is elected to office for five-year terms by a ‘virtual’ electoral college consisting of members of federal and state legislative assemblies. The system is designed to ensure the election of a truly national candidate following the two principles of uniformity among states, and parity between the centre and the states.

If we adapted the method of choosing the Indian president to the Australian context, the electoral college would consist of all members of lower and upper houses in all state capitals, as well as the federal parliament. The weight assigned to each state elector’s vote would reflect population ratios. One-thousandth of the total population of each state would be divided by the total number of legislators in the state parliament. (The quotient would be rounded up to the nearest whole number.) This would ensure uniformity among states.

The number of federal MPs (representatives plus senators) is 226. The value of each federal MP’s and Senator’s vote would therefore be one-thousandth of 23,850,000 (the total population of Australia) divided by 226 (the total number of federal MPs), which equals 106 (rounding up to the nearest whole number again). The combined aggregate vote of the two houses of the federal parliament would thus equal the combined aggregate vote of all the state legislatures. This would satisfy the principle of parity between the Commonwealth and the states.

The method of voting in India, which could be adapted without modification here, is the single transferable vote. Electors cast first and second preferences. To be successful, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the votes cast by the electoral college. As the lowest polling candidate is eliminated in each round, preferences are transferred to other remaining candidates until one candidate crosses the threshold of 50 per cent of votes cast.

As with all political systems, the choice of presidents involves political judgement and delicate balancing acts. This is especially true over time. The offices must be rotated between the major regions and demographic groups of the population.

The advantages of such a method of choosing an Australian president would be manifold. It would avoid the complications, distastefulness and expense of direct elections. Choice by popular elections could degenerate into highly-charged political exercises that leave divisions and bitterness. Some of those best qualified for a dignified office could refuse to allow their names to go forward as potential candidates. Further, a directly elected president could pose a major challenge to the authority of the PM and cabinet.

Yet the process is recognisably democratic. It would avoid the president being simply a creature of the federal government of the day. The electoral college would be an accurate representation of all shades of political opinion, exercising influence in the election of the president in proportion to population sizes. But because the ‘electoral college’ never has to meet physically, the process is virtually cost-free. And, by giving equal weight to all the states combined vis-à-vis the Commonwealth, it would reinforce the federal character of Australian politics.

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17 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Why would Australia want to include representatives from state parliaments in such a process when our federal parliamentary structure is already a mixed representation of population (lower house) and geography (upper house)?

  2. mat says:

    Going republic is a insane idea, crime and homeless rates will skyrocket making Australia a less desirable and segregated place to live in.

  3. hughe mungus says:

    i reckon that someone who is Australian should be head of state

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