ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 2, Winter 2012

Vice-Chancellor's column

Greg Craven ACU Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven

The Rudd Constitution

“One of the few reassuring things about this world is that there are iron laws of nature. Bats fly. Elephants do not. No one holidays in Adelaide.

Until a few months ago, politics was the same. People with less reliable numbers than Louie the Fly did not launch leadership challenges, especially from Washington. Anthony Albanese snarled, but did not weep like a willow. Julia Gillard was the model of restraint, not a sort of prime ministerial Valkyrie.

But now that all these comforting realities have been set aside, perhaps we can consider some of the deeper significance of Kevin Rudd's spectacular political immolation with pike and triple somersault.

In fact, that significance goes much deeper than the descent of Australian politics into bad sitcom for a couple of weeks. It reflects a major challenge to the basic character of Australian government.

We all accept the glib truism that politics these days is much more personal and presidential. The potent personality of the leader is worth a stack of seats.

So we acknowledge that Bob Hawke's success came not just from his prodigious intellect, but also his public character as a testosterone sandwich. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, on the other hand, both suffer from the crippling disability of being pretty well normal.

All this leads to election campaigns in which the improbable virtues of "the Leader" are lauded like the miraculous qualities of rival cleaning liquids, while differences of policy are swept decently into the corner.

This is well and good, but it does disguise the fact that the Prime Ministership is not actually a popularity contest or at least not one where it is the populace that counts. This is because Australia is not a democracy, but a representative democracy.

What this means is that the people do not choose the Prime Minister, even at one remove. Their votes may well be cast by reference to who they think will take the electric chair next to the despatch boxes, but what they actually are voting for are members of parliament, who ultimately will elect party leaders, one of whom ultimately will become Prime Minister.

In fact, this is logically inevitable under a system of parliamentary responsible government, where the Prime Minister must be the person who controls a majority of votes in the House of Representatives. Michael Clarke may well be implausibly beloved of the populace, but without parliamentary majority, could not even order a beer in the Members' bar.

This is what millions of starry eyed Queenslanders need to understand. It does not matter in constitutional terms how much you or I love Kevin Rudd. The only thing that matters is how much his colleagues hate him. If you cannot live with this, you need a new Constitution, not a new Prime Minister.

This is the real long term significance of Rudd's audacious bid. In reality, Rudd was operating under his own personal constitution, where he sought to make the legitimacy of the prime ministerial office directly dependent upon a (carefully massaged) perception of continuing popular support.

This goes much further than the presidential silliness of the average election campaign. It represents an explicit attempt to appeal over the head of parliamentary government itself to the people at large.

In this sense, Kevin Rudd was right to talk about a coup, but he fingered the wrong person. He was himself the man on horseback, though mercifully only metaphorically. His attempt failed, but is still deeply disturbing.

There are two real lessons here. First, while it would be naive to imagine that the words "constitutional propriety" were often uttered during Labor's frenzied internal debates, they got their decision constitutionally right. Whether it costs them an election, believe it or not, ultimately is less important.

Second, the popular reaction around Rudd's claims of a legitimacy based on mass support and improper insider removal indicates not only a deep misunderstanding of constitutional reality, but a profound disenchantment with parliamentary government.

Where this disenchantment may lead us over the next couple of decades is unclear, but there are some fairly unpleasant possibilities. Just for a start, a directly elected president under any Australian republic looks an absolute monte.

We even know who would win. K-rudd in Yarralumla would certainly concentrate the mind of any prime minister.”

Professor Greg Craven is Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University

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