Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Do Australians elect the prime minister?

In a recent post entitled ‘The importance of representative democracy’, my friend, Jim Belshaw, takes the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, to task for saying that the Australian people elect the Prime Minister.

Jim writes:
‘They don't, nor should they if you want to maintain our current system of Government’. Maybe you don't so, so present your alternative.
In our system, Parliament is the supreme being. Parliament appoints the Prime Minister by awarding confidence. It is Parliament that stands between us and the overbearing coercive power of Executive Government.’

It seems to me that while Jim is technically correct, it has been unusual for party leaders to be deposed while their party is in government. That has led to a situation where most people have tended to vote for party leaders and perceptions of leadership have a massive influence on the popularity of political parties. The recent lift in the Labor party’s electoral prospects did not occur because of some radical change in the party’s policies. It occurred because caucus elected a new leader.

As previously noted, I am pleased that the Labor caucus has restored Kevin Rudd to the leadership and have given voters the opportunity to vote against him. It does seem reasonable for voters to expect that the leader of the party they vote into office will remain prime minister until they vote him or her out of office. On the basis of Labor’s recent track record, however, it also seems reasonable for voters to question how long Kevin Rudd will remain prime minister if Labor is returned to government. Will Kevin Rudd again be replaced by his deputy next time around? Could a vote for Kevin end up as a vote for Albo?

Unfortunately for the line of argument Tony Abbott seems to be running, the Liberal party also has recent form (in Victoria) in deposing an elected leader while it is in government. And it is possible to imagine circumstances arising where a vote for Tony might end up as a vote for Malcolm. Some voters might view that as a good reason to vote Liberal!

What effect will it have on our system of government if it becomes become more common for prime ministers to be deposed by their own parties? I’m not sure. If it makes voters focus to a greater extent on policies rather than the personalities of leaders that would be a good thing. However, I don’t think that will happen. It seems more likely to attract attention to the personalities of the leader’s rivals in his or her party and could lead to greater political instability as those rivals seek to exploit their popularity with voters. But it may also cause voters to pay more attention to the ability of current leaders to work harmoniously with their rivals. People may become more conscious that when they vote for clowns they end up with a circus.

I am broadly in agreement with Jim about the importance of parliament and representative democracy. I don’t want to change the system. In practice, however, I don’t think parliament does much to protect us from what Jim describes as ‘the overbearing coercive power of Executive Government’. Thank God that we also have a constitution, rule of law, regular elections, two houses of parliament, and a federal system of government.

Another important merit of our representative system of democracy, with single member electorates, is that it normally produces accountable government. One party or stable coalition normally wins a majority of seats and is able to form a government that usually lasts until the next election is held. The elected government doesn’t have unlimited power to implement the policies it is elected to pursue, but it can be held accountable for the policies that it implements.

By contrast, when overall budgetary and regulatory outcomes are the result of unstable alliances involving minor parties and independents, voters have great difficulty in holding any party accountable. 

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