President Abbott: or why prime ministers should not be immune from removal by their party

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Sunday, 8 March 2015 18:30 by Ken Wolff

After the failure of the ‘spill’ motion on 9 February, Abbott said:

We think that when you elect a government, when you elect a prime minister, you deserve to keep that government and that prime minister until you have had a chance to change your mind.

Ignoring that the polls were indicating the people had already changed their mind, the statement continued Abbott’s approach in the lead-up to the spill motion (and since) that he was elected by the people, whereas John Howard had previously said the ‘leadership’ was a ‘gift of the party room’.

Who is right?

Abbott’s approach, as was Kevin Rudd’s, is that he was elected by the people as prime minister but under the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, which we use, members of the House of Representatives (where governments are formed) are elected by the voters of single electorates. They are elected to represent those electorates. Under the Westminster system, we have a strong party system in place to provide stable government — it would be next to impossible to have stable government if every individual member acted as an independent in the interests of their own electorate. That means that when we elect an individual member for an electorate, we also know to which party he or she will add their vote in the parliament. The leader of each major party, whether Liberal, Labor or National, is elected by the members elected to the parliament for that party (although Labor now includes an element of membership participation in a contested vote). It is true that we know the leader of each party going into an election and therefore who will probably be prime minister if the party wins enough seats to form government, but there is no rule that says that must be so — it is an expectation that has been created.

It is also true that election campaigns now tend to focus around the leader of each party and, in that sense, there is an element of a presidential election about the campaigns. (Whether that is good or bad is a debate for another time.)

In essence, we now have a Westminster system operating for and in the parliament but something closer to a presidential system operating in the way election campaigns are conducted. It is little wonder that voters become confused.

Despite claiming he was elected by the people, like a president, Abbott tried to use the Westminster system to defend his position in the spill motion. He called on his ministers to support him under the Westminster convention of ‘cabinet solidarity’ but ‘cabinet solidarity’ is primarily about policy decisions: it says that, no matter how much argument goes on in a cabinet meeting, once a decision is agreed each minister is bound to support that decision publicly — it is not meant to be about internal party politics.

There are significant differences between a Westminster democracy and a presidential democracy, particularly as operates in the US — from which we seem to draw most of our election campaign techniques.

The first major difference is that the US president is not only head of the executive government but also head of state. Our prime minister is only head of the executive government. The Queen of Australia is our titular head of state but the role is fulfilled by the governor-general and under our system the head of state has next to no role in the daily activities of government but the US president does. Our governor-general still signs laws into effect but does so on the advice of the government of the day and, certainly by convention, has almost no power to over-ride that advice. The US President can veto legislation passed by the congress if he (no ‘her’ as yet) does not like it.

A second major difference is that the US president selects his cabinet from anywhere — they don’t have to be members of the congress, indeed rarely are. In our case, not only the head of the executive government but members of the cabinet are drawn from those elected to the parliament. There is no rule that this should be so but it is one of the conventions of the Westminster system. The fact that the Westminster system relies on convention, rather than being enforced by rules, was evident when Campbell Newman first became leader of his party in Queensland while still outside the parliament: we could not countenance, however, that he could become a member of the government while outside the parliament and a seat had to be found for him before the ensuing election.

The American system is very much the old system of a democratic monarchy. The monarch (president) selects his own ministers (secretaries of state) and they are required to appear before parliament (congress) to answer questions about, and be held accountable for, actions they may have taken or not taken, as the case may be. Basically all the Americans did when they achieved independence was replace the monarch in that system with an elected president. And a little like the Abbott and Rudd misapprehension in Australia that people vote directly for the prime minister, it is also a misapprehension in the US that people vote directly for the president. They are actually voting for members of an ‘electoral college’ at the state level, who then join all those elected by other states and select the president. Originally members of the electoral college were free to vote for whomever they liked but now most states nominate all their electoral college votes to the winner of the popular presidential vote in that state. The electoral college was introduced because the early founders of the US republic were wary of giving the people a direct say in the election of the president and because it was feared that someone sympathetic to the British could be elected and effectively ‘undo’ the revolution: the college was an intermediary that also gave the states a greater say in the election of the president. (Apparently there have been four occasions when the electoral college votes did not match the popular vote, including in 2000 when George W Bush was elected.)

Which approach is more democratic? (As an aside, I did once convince an American, using the preceding arguments, that their system was closer to a democratic monarchy.)

In our system all members of the government have been voted for: they have won an electorate somewhere in the country or a large enough proportion of the vote to be elected to the Senate. There are no outsiders. Ministers can be voted out of parliament just like any other member, as can prime ministers (Howard) and state premiers (Newman).

The closest our prime minister comes to a presidential power is the ability to select ministers, remove ministers and move ministers in what we commonly call a ‘reshuffle’. (Technically it is the governor-general who has that power but, because the governor-general must act on the advice of the government, it is effectively the prime minister.) While that has always been the Liberal way, Labor only adopted that approach when Rudd became prime minister. Before that the Labor caucus elected from its number those who would be ministers and a Labor prime minister could only allocate portfolios to those who were elected. (Labor returned to that approach in opposition when Bill Shorten was elected in 2013.) Ministers can be removed for many reasons: misbehaviour outside the parliament, not being a good minister, disloyalty (as perceived by the prime minister or the party), travel rorts, undeclared gifts, undeclared pecuniary interests, and so on, or simply the need to reward someone else with a ministry.

Abbott has already selected one ministry and conducted one reshuffle so he has exercised that power. If ministers can be removed in such a way, it logically seems to follow that prime ministers can also be removed within the parliamentary party system, not only by popular vote. Even the name ‘prime minister’ suggests that — the person is only the ‘first’ minister, or the ‘chief’ or ‘head’ minister, but still a minister. If people can only vote once every three years (in the normal course of events) who has the power to remove a prime minister in between? We know from 1975 that the governor-general is one such person but it requires extreme circumstances that cannot be resolved politically or by the courts.

There is an argument that democracy can be enhanced by the use of plebiscites and ‘recall’ votes, as in a number of US states. Such an approach certainly allows for democratic participation in consideration of major issues and legislation and provides a capacity to ‘recall’ a leader or representative who has lost the support of the majority of the population. Would such an approach work in Australia? I don’t think so.

Australians are notorious for viewing voting as an irksome duty, not something they willingly undertake to express their democratic rights. A majority tend to want to vote and then leave the government to ‘get on with it’ for the next three years and not bother them too much: as Howard once described it, we want to be left alone feeling ‘relaxed and comfortable’. But we do react when things are going on that we don’t like and that is expressed in the opinion polls, sometimes in public dissent and these days on social media.

Under the presidential system, when a policy proves unpopular, it is most likely that a secretary of state will be removed so that he or she is no longer a symbol of a disliked policy. The president, as head of state, must remain. Although it is also possible to remove a minister under our system, it has become the case that the prime minister now seems to represent all facets of the government and wears the blame for policy miscalculations. In Abbott’s and Rudd’s cases that blame is probably warranted because of the way they centralised power within their own offices. It can also apply more generally because our prime minister is head of the executive government and therefore bears some responsibility for all actions of the government (just as the CEO of a company does): our prime minister does not have the immunity of a head of state.

Popular expressions of discontent with policy can’t actually change the prime minister — only an election or a party-room vote can do that. Therefore public expressions of dissent between elections can only be meant to encourage the parties to change their policies or their leadership, or both.

Liberal party leaders have always had a lot of power, perhaps because the party was founded around an individual, Robert Menzies. That leads to many more ‘captain’s picks’ as we are now seeing with Abbott as leader. Labor leaders historically have had less power but Rudd changed that hoping to entrench his own position. Now a Labor party-room change of leader requires a petition signed by 75% of the caucus when in government, or 60% of the caucus when in opposition. It does not seem to apply if a leader steps down. If the new leadership is contested, then a vote takes place that includes Labor party members. It is not impossible to change a Labor leader between elections but it is more difficult under the new rules: it is likely to lead to greater use of the ‘tap on the shoulder’ to encourage a leader to resign rather than go through the petition process and also to factional agreements to nominate only one person for the leadership to avoid a vote.

One of the arguments that was put in favour of Rudd’s new rules was that it allows ‘hard’ decisions to be made without concern about the polls. In a democracy, however, governments should be in the business of convincing the people that hard decisions are justified. Hawke and Keating made major changes largely through consensus of key stakeholders and publicly arguing the need for change. Even Howard’s GST was spoken about for some time before it was introduced and did go through one election that the Liberals won despite the GST — so there was a mandate of a sort. If prime ministers are safe in their position, with no ability to remove them before the next election, then they may see no need to convince the people about the correctness of any policy approach — which seems to have been the attitude Abbott and Hockey took with the budget.

What is wrong with a party removing its leader if it is seen that the leader has lost the support of the people or that the policies being pursued are being rejected by the people?

I think that removing a party’s ability to remove its leader would lead us towards a presidential system that is undemocratic. Where is the democracy in a system that says the prime minister cannot be removed, except at an election, if the people are already speaking through the polls, through demonstrations and on social media? If a party cannot remove its leader in such circumstances, then it is not listening to the people — and that is not democratic.

Mr Abbott, like Mr Rudd before you, you are not a president, you are not a head of state, and your party room can remove you in the interest of democracy.

What do you think?

About Ken

This week Ken argues that the party-room removal of a prime minister is an expression of democracy, not an undemocratic procedure as Rudd and Abbott have claimed. Please express your own democratic rights and post a comment on whether Ken is right.

Next week we welcome the return of our resident gypsy, if a gypsy can be said to be resident. Jan presents a piece questioning why the mainstream media, after spending so long supporting Abbott, now seems surprised at his incompetence. The piece, of course, is entitled, 'Surprise, surprise ...'