The trouble with Presidents
If you look around the world, at almost any time, there always seems to be some problem with some president somewhere.
Today it’s in Sri Lanka, and in Georgia. Then there is Serbia, where on three occasions the people have shown their contempt for their republic by boycotting the election for a president. Not once, but three times!
I have been attacked for saying that Australians are not interested in their nation becoming a republic. But in doing so, I have merely been quoting the words of the republican leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who wrote precisely that in his diary a few months before the 1999 referendum. Pity he didn’t tell us beforehand - we could have called it off and saved the taxpayer millions of dollars.
I was reminded of the problems with presidents because of recent events in the Australian Labor Party. Now it was always obvious than the Labor Party had at most a lukewarm interest in a republic. It was slipped into the platform at one of those interminable conferences when many of the delegates had gone home.
But Paul Keating certainly found it a useful issue to distract us from his abandoning traditional Labor policies, especially in selling off the crown jewels, particularly the Commonwealth Bank.
And by threatening it, with the adulation of the commentarariat, he was able to make some nervous coalition politicians take fright and think they had better look modern and be relevant and join this winning bandwagon. As the stalwart ones would not, he then hoped to sit back and enjoy the divisions in their ranks.
But the ALP was never really interested, and even their participation in the referendum in 1999 was more to enjoy divisions in the coalition ranks and to treat a "Yes" vote as a vote of no confidence in John Howard. But the Labor rank and file - not the café latte set - solidly voted "No".
Then why, oh why, did the ALP change its constitution to provide for a president elected by the rank and file? Was it because they had spent too much time reading the terms of the first Keating Turnbull republic? As Justice Ken Handley has demonstrated from an actual case study, this has the potential of producing two competing politicians trying to govern the country. It would have been better for the ALP to have had the Leader elected by the rank and file, as the Democrats do and, inexplicably, the British Tories do in certain cases. It is not a good idea - it is obviously better for the MPs to choose the person they know to lead them. But it would be infinitely better than having what the public - in confusion - and the media - in delight - will see as not one leader, but two. It will make the ALP less attractive to the voter.
And for this role the ALP could not have chosen a more appropriate first president, the former front bencher and Premier of Western Australia, Dr Carmen Lawrence. Not only is her memory apparently restored, she has a self-proclaimed ability to distil what are rank-and-file views - and then to proclaim them from the rooftops. This is particularly so in relation to Labor’s Achilles heel, border protection. Her views there are closer to the Greens, and a long way from those of the Leader of the Opposition.
So whenever the smugglers try to land their clients, and the government reacts, there will be the usual condemnation of the government by the Greens, the Democrats, and a distancing by parliamentary Labor. But in addition there will be a very newsworthy story - the ALP president and the Greens will be singing from the same hymn sheet. That itself will be the story, along with divisions in the ALP. And not only will this occur on this issue - Dr Lawrence has only one year to make or remake her mark - and she will use it. And she is not short of views.
Why did the ALP get itself into this mess?
But there is an answer, consistent with modern ALP policy.
This article was first published in the Australian's for a Constitutional Monarchy e-newsletter Hot News on 28 November, 2003.
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