Fatal flaw in the ARM model
It was good to see the political realism and clear thinking of Bob Ellicott regarding the proposed referendum on the "bipartisan" or ARM model for a republic (The Australian, 5 March 1999).
Among several convincing reasons for opposition to the model, he pointed to a fatal flaw which I have been surprised to see has not, so far, received much public attention: that is, the proposal that the Prime Minister be able to dismiss the President at will.
Apart from the fact that it would be an affront to the people of the nation who could be expected to have an investment in the President as their general representative or symbolic head, it would most probably fail to solve a constitutional crisis which might tempt the Prime Minister to such precipitous action.
Malcolm Turnbull said in a television interview some months ago that the power of the PM to dismiss the President was necessary while the Senate had power to block supply, but why? How would it solve the problem?
Consider the likely course of events in the circumstances of October-November 1975. Gough Whitlam wrote in reference to the Governor General's action in dismissing him, "The secrecy of his intervention was the essential ingredient of the success of the whole operation." There is no room here for the traditional power of the Sovereign to advise and to warn, no opportunity for rational discussion and compromise led by an impartial head of state. With heightened political emotions spreading through the community, and knowing now the threat to the Government, a Prime Minister who has any reason to suspect that such action might be taken would get in first -- if he could -- but it would be a cloak and dagger business. Whoever gets in first, the consequences in terms of public order could be more serious than in 1975. But suppose the PM was the more successful in deceiving the other, and there were no serious riots, what happens next in the case where there is a deadlock between the two Houses?
The PM would not be able to nominate a candidate for election to the vacancy without the support of the Leader of the Opposition, which in a deadlock situation he or she would be unlikely to obtain, nor could any partisan nomination gain the necessary two thirds majority vote. The deadlock would remain and there would be no way for an election to be called for either or both Houses. Removal of the President would not solve the 1975 dilemma unless other substantial changes were made.
There has been no mention, or at least no public discussion, of any provision for the appointment of an Acting President or Administrator, who might or might not be able to resolve a crisis when there is a vacancy in the office of President; but note that if any such
appointment to fill a vacancy in the role of the President is a mere executive decision, then all power in such matters passes to the Prime Minister, provided that he could chose a person to do his bidding. It would then be technically possible for a PM to remove any President whenever he chose, even as soon as he or she is appointed, and put in his or her own nominee, and then refuse to agree to any bipartisan nomination for a regularly elected President. The "bipartisan" safeguards in the Parliamentary method of election would then be subverted; and it they were not, we have to discover what happens when there is no President -- perhaps in the midst of a national crisis.
Furthermore, while the method of appointment of the President is to be put to the people, the method of dismissal which is part of the model has not been mentioned as a referendum question although it must have a profound affect on the operation of the Constitution.
We have a long way to go yet before we have a democratic model for a republican constitution.
5 March 1999