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Will Australia's President be a Poodle?

The Australian Democrats yesterday backed down over the republic referendum question, leaving voters with the prospect of choosing between the present constitutional monarchy, or a republic that few voters favour - a politicians' republic.

The referendum wording agreed to by Cabinet on Monday stands - referring to a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of Federal Parliament.

The Democrats' backdown came after the government refused to change the referendum Bill in this respect, after the Bill was returned to the Lower House following rejection in the Upper House on Wednesday.

Changes to the Bill include provision for a further constitutional convention within three to five years.

The Democrat's "win" from challenging the Government relates to the preamble. Changes here include: removal of the reference to "mateship"; insertion of wording referring to the "kinship" of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders with the land; and a reference to protecting the environment.

The leader of the Democrats, Meg Lees, said she did not believe the Democrats should stop the referendum proceeding.

The Democrats had made it clear from the outset they would back down if Howard stood firm.

The Democrats seem to have taken the view they, not the Government, would have suffered the fallout from deferring a referendum.

But this is not an obvious conclusion, given most of the public appear opposed to the Howard question and the Keating-Turnbull, politicians' republic. More than half the electorate appears to prefer a directly elected presidency.

So there seems a reasonable prospect the Government, not the Democrats, might have suffered the fallout from a deferred referendum.

So the Democrats' position suggests they are either ineffectual (Keating's "fairies" thesis) or do not fundamentally disagree with the Keating-Turnbull republic model.

Certainly, the Democrats have been reluctant to address the real issues, suggesting the latter possibility might be a factor.

Independent Tasmanian Green Senator, Bob Brown, made scathing remarks over the Democrats' backdown.

"The Democrats are becoming political poodles, people who run round the room barking - then jump in the first lap available," he said.

Meanwhile the public debate on the matter has yet again been diverted to the preamble.

While the preamble is not completely trivial, it is insignificant compared with the real issue - which is addressing the "kingly powers" that at present reside with the monarchy under the Australian constitution.

At present the Head of State can defer or reject outright Bills passed by Parliament and is technically in charge of the armed forces.

The fact these powers are not used, or even widely known about, is NOT because of anything in the constitution itself. Rather, it is due to the declining legitimacy of the monarchy.

If the Head of State were elected, on the other hand, legitimacy would be restored, opening the possibility or even likelihood the Head of Sate would begin to exercise his or her constitutional powers.

Indeed, depending on the electoral system used for electing a President, the President might claim higher legitimacy than the PM and ruling party. Right now, for instance, the Government of the day received less electoral support than the Opposition, thanks to Australia's modified first past the past electoral system.

Clearly, the political establishment is horrified by the prospect of a US style Presidency. Yet an executive presidency is a distinctly possible outcome given the current constitution.

The Australian public has, however, shown no appetite for an executive style presidency.

So what the debate should be focusing on is limiting the "kingly powers" accorded to the Head of State under the constitution.

The objective would be a non-executive presidency, with limited powers.

This is the point the Anarchists made to the Marxists well before the Russian Revolution - it doesn't matter who's in power, it's how much power they have that matters.

Instead of limiting the powers of the Head of State, however, the Keating-Turnbull solution is to neuter the present kingly powers by making the Head of State beholden to the PM of the day.

So if the referendum is passed, Australia will get a President.

But always remember this: the Australian President will be like the so-called Democrats - a poodle.

Simon Orme made narrow escapes from both the New Zealand Treasury and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and now lives in Sydney, attempting to make the NSW electricity sector user friendly.

Email: simonorme@hotmail.com

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