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No confidence in Westminster republics

By David Flint - posted Thursday, 11 August 2005

Republican constitutions often attempt to imitate the highly successful Westminster system, which is used in what are, according to the UN Development Index, the world’s most successful countries.

Five of the world’s seven oldest continuous democracies are Westminster systems. The other two, the United States and Switzerland, are republics which do not attempt to imitate the Westminster system. Their record of stability is somewhat tainted by their civil wars.

Germany's first attempt at a Westminster republic, the inter-war Weimar republic, is generally assessed as a failure. The Weimar republic was marked by serious instability, financial crises and President Hindenburg's appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor.


In the post war period, Germans were faced with the problem of ensuring the mistakes of the Weimar republic were not repeated. They saw their parliamentary constitution needed a president as a check and balance against the chancellor and the government, who would control a majority in the lower house, the Bundestag. But they also realised that an elected president is another politician. This is equally so whether the president is elected directly by the people, or by a college.

The drafters of various republican constitutions have devised all sorts of colleges. Indeed this seems to be part of the fun in being a republican, if we can call that fun.

Under the present German constitution, the president is elected by a college, the Bundesversammlung. This consists of the Bundestag, the federal lower house, and an equal number of delegates from the states. The current means of choosing a president is similar to that preferred in Australia in the years leading up to the 1999 referendum in that it too was not a direct election model.

Germany's current president, Horst Köhler, was elected on March 4, 2004. He was the candidate chosen by Germany’s conservative and liberal opposition parties. Selected by Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), currently Germany's largest opposition party, he was endorsed by its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), as well as the small liberal party, the Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP).

With opposition parties controlling a majority of votes in the Bundesversammlung, the result of the vote should have been a foregone conclusion. It turned out closer than expected. Köhler defeated Social Democrat candidate Gesine Schwan on the first ballot by 604 votes to 580. There were 20 votes for minor candidates, and one elector was absent because of a heart attack.

The result is comparable to John Howard having a Labor President, or Paul Keating a Liberal President. Obviously, if the president had the powers of, say, the Australian Governor-General, this could put the two on a collision course.


This is the problem with Westminster republics. How do you turn a politician into what the Crown provides - a leader above politics?

In Australia, former politicians have made this conversion on appointment as governor-general. This is because they are appointed by - and removable by - their sovereign, or whoever recommends the sovereign act. They know their duty is to the Queen, and through her, the people.

The case of Sir William McKell illustrates this point. His appointment was criticised because he was a Labor Premier of NSW. Sir Robert Menzies, the then Leader of the Opposition, saw to it that his party’s criticisms ceased after Sir William took office. When Menzies, having satisfied all constitutional conditions, sought a double dissolution in 1951, some observers thought McKell would act politically. They believed he would decline the request, and instead act in the interests of the Labor Party. It was widely believed the subsequent election would deliver control of both houses to the Liberals.

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About the Author

David Flint is a former chairman of the Australian Press Council and the Australian Broadcasting Authority, is author of The Twilight of the Elites, and Malice in Media Land, published by Freedom Publishing. His latest monograph is Her Majesty at 80: Impeccable Service in an Indispensable Office, Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Sydney, 2006

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