[LINK] Not-Quite-On-Topic: 'Elective Monarchy'
Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au
Tue Jun 21 08:35:35 EST 2005
[I wish a couple of the current 'National Living Treasures'
would hurry up and depart, to make room for Harry Evans]
A day spent in the public gallery would shock the founding fathers
The Sydney Morning Herald
Date: June 21 2005
Parliament should be a place of debate, not a rubber stamp for the
prime minister, writes Harry Evans.
WHEN the legislation about research on human embryos passed Federal
Parliament in 2002, several Government members expressed their
gratitude to the Prime Minister who, in his kindness and wisdom, had
allowed them a free, or conscience, vote. No one pointed out the
bizarre implication of these statements for the system of government:
the prime minister determines how the electors' representatives vote.
If any of the framers of the constitution were brought back to life
and heard these statements, they would be amazed, and would ask how
the system they devised had come to this.
Their basic principle, as one of them expressed it, was that the
law-making power should never be vested in a single authority,
whether a single man or a single assembly, because that is the
definition of tyranny. Their constitutional structure aimed to
distribute power to prevent its abuse and the corrupting effect it
would have if it were absolute.
They could point out in their handiwork a range of institutions
designed to divide power: the governor-general, the local
constitutional monarch, could act as a supreme umpire when
appropriate; the executive government, the ministry, would be
responsible to the House of Representatives, so that the House could
remove it at any time; law-making would be divided between the House
and the Senate, differently reflecting the votes of the electors in
their states; power would be divided between federal and state
parliaments; the High Court would act as the guardian of the
It would be painful indeed to explain to our revived founder how this
structure has deteriorated: the governor-general is hired and fired
by the prime minister; the prime minister, who is the executive
government, controls the House of Representatives through an
ever-reliable party majority; the Senate has been a restraint on the
prime minister's will when his party has not had a majority there;
the federal government has been able to take over virtually any state
functions; High Court judges are appointed by the prime minister with
regard to their ideological persuasion.
That would be depressing enough for him, but we would then have to
tell him that a government recently gained a party majority in the
But what does the Parliament do? he would ask. Answer: members act as
a cheer squad for their leader, and non-government parties are
overridden in every contested vote. Why do the electors tolerate this
situation? he would cry. Answer: because they generally only have the
information the government is pleased to give them through its vast
media-management network, and, in any case, they have come to believe
this is how the system works. They have only the ability to change
one autocrat for another, if they can get around the incumbent's
Our founder would recognise this system as more like one he thought
had long gone. We would have to concede our government has become
more like an early modern autocracy: the monarch rules from his royal
court (the prime minister's office) and while he might consult his
courtiers, his will is the law. The power and influence of those
courtiers depend on how close they are to the throne and to the
In an extreme situation, the palace guard (the government party) may
depose the king and replace him with another, who will carry on the
same system. We no longer have parliamentary government in any
meaningful sense of the term.
The system is justified on a "mandate" theory, the claim that, by
electing a government, the electors endorse everything it has said it
will do and everything it does in the future. The absurdity of
supposing that the voters give a blank cheque to their rulers has
long been exposed by political analysts. More significant is the
point that this theory leaves no role for a Parliament, or for any
other constitutional restraint on government.
Before shuffling off to his immortal abode, our resurrected founder
would probably demand to know what we are going to do about it. There
are no obvious solutions, only analyses of the problem which might
lead to solutions.
The first step is to persuade enough people that the system was not
meant to be like this, and should not be like this. Parliament is the
key weak link.
Government members should not feel they have to support the
government on every vote. Members of other parliaments do not abide
by this alleged rule. It is not the case that a government defeated
on a vote in the House of Representatives must resign or go to an
election; that is a prime ministerial bluff. Members can vote against
their government on a particular matter while still supporting its
remaining in office. That is not a violation of the Westminster
system; it happens in other places supposedly following that system.
The record of 57 of the 104 years of Federation, when governments did
not have majorities in the Senate, shows that government is not
paralysed when it does not control that chamber.
In the last Parliament only six pieces of legislation remained
finally deadlocked, out of the 200-odd a year which are passed,
sometimes with amendments the government reluctantly accepts. The
legislation which remains deadlocked in any Parliament is usually of
high ideological content lacking broad community support.
The inability of governments to pass this legislation is a small
price to pay for a House which is, by virtue of not being under
government control, able to make the government accountable and to
inquire into matters of public concern. Giving a monopoly of power to
one party is not the essence of good government but, under the way
our parties operate, a sure route to corruption and misrule.
In short, people have to demand that their elected representatives
actually represent them, and not settle for choosing between
autocrats every three years.
Harry Evans is clerk of the Senate.
[Yesterday the Herald commenced an (excellent!) assault on the
Government's failure to even respond to large numbers of Committee
reports, let alone to implement their recommendations. Its lead
story on page 1 today continues the attack by featuring Harry
lambasting the monarchic style adopted by the Prime Ministers of the
last, say, 10 years or so]
Senate boss blasts PM's monarchy
The Sydney Morning Herald
Date: June 21 2005
By Gerard Ryle, Lisa Pryor and Mark Metherell
The Australian Parliament has deteriorated into a form of elective
monarchy where the Prime Minister "rules all he surveys", says the
most senior public servant in the Senate, Harry Evans.
In remarkably frank reaction to Herald revelations that parliamentary
inquiries are being ignored by the Government, Mr Evans, the Clerk of
the Senate, says it is time the public insists on better
Writing in the Herald today, he argues: "We no longer have
parliamentary government in any meaningful sense of the term."
On radio yesterday, Mr Evans likened John Howard to a king and said
people needed to be more sophisticated about what they expected from
their elected representatives. "There is in Australia an enormous
concentration of power in the Prime Minister," he told 2UE. "People
don't realise this, that we really have a sort of elective monarchy
where, you know, you elect the monarch and [he] rules all he
While voters solidly support the Howard Government and gave it a
clear majority in both houses of Parliament, Mr Evans argues that
this does not give the Prime Minister the right to dictate how his
MPs should vote on every issue.
Calling Parliament the weak link, he writes that Government MPs
should not support it on "every note" and urges voters to demand
their "elected representatives actually represent them, and not
settle for choosing between autocrats every three years".
Mr Evans has a reputation for being impartial but also a fierce
defender of parliamentary process. He has been tough on Coalition and
Yesterday the Herald revealed that millions of taxpayers' dollars had
been wasted on more than 70 parliamentary inquiries whose
recommendations had been left to collect dust. Forty-six of these
were Senate inquiries, some dating back to 1997.
The Government Senate leader, Robert Hill, defended its record by
saying many of the upper house inquiries were designed to embarrass
the Government. "In relation to proper bipartisan reports, they are
taken seriously by the Government. Most have in fact been responded
to, certainly not always within the very strict time limited that are
required We take the task of responding to genuine parliamentary
However, today the Herald details how the Government has not even
responded to inquiries that it has ordered - 27 of them in the House
of Representatives since December 1998. It is supposed to respond
within three months but some of these inquiries date back six years.
They include reports on the 2003 bushfires, crime, substance abuse
The Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, said: "There's a whole range of
issues which from time to time have deeply concerned and worried the
Australian population and this Government has treated them all in the
most cavalier fashion in its arrogance."
A coalition of community groups burnt by the inquiry process will
form a watchdog group to monitor how the Federal Government responds.
To be known as the Parliamentary Action Group, it will check whether
it replies within three months, as it promised in 1996. The groups
met yesterday at the Ashfield Uniting Church, led by the Reverend
Bill Crews of the Exodus Foundation.
But the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, said people who went to the
trouble of giving evidence to committees should not think their
efforts were in vain as many government policies "are subtly
moderated because of the kind of evidence that parliamentary
committees take". A 2003 Senate inquiry had been taken into account
in the Government's "strengthening Medicare" changes.
Story Picture: Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, stands with Committee reports.
Roger Clarke http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/
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mailto:Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au http://www.xamax.com.au/
Visiting Professor in the Baker Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre, UNSW
Visiting Professor in the eCommerce Program, University of Hong Kong
Visiting Fellow in Computer Science, Australian National University
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