Ideas should be considered on their merits. The identity of those who propose them should be irrelevant. So much for the theory. Most of us still want to know something about who is proposing a change and why.
The Advancing Democracy model is an attempt to fix the flaws in the Constitution exposed by the 1975 constitutional crisis.
In 1975, I was in Year 12 at a private school on Sydney’s north shore, studying among other things economics and modern history. Having followed politics since childhood, I spent much of the year resolving in my mind where I stood politically. By the end of that tumultuous year, I had decided - I joined the Liberal Party during the election campaign triggered by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government.
The next year, aged 17, I commenced an Arts / Law degree at Macquarie University, and took the first year politics courses. The dismissal was a major issue of discussion. I argued that the blocking of supply and Kerr’s decision had been justified.
The course ended mid-year, but I continued my research on the constitutional crisis. It annoyed me that people still argued that the Whitlam Government had not been so bad; that it did not deserve its fate. As I attempted to collect evidence that its poor economic record was unprecedented, it was rather galling to find that I was wrong - it wasn’t so unprecedented, and there were factors at work beyond its control. Shortly afterwards, I had a more disturbing realisation - one central fact could not be put aside. Democracy is based on majority rule. The house which most closely reflects the choice of the majority is the House of Representatives. The Whitlam Government held a majority there when it was dismissed.
I already understood the difference between principle and expedience. A principle is a rule that is so important you follow it even when it is to your disadvantage. I came to see the arguments in favour of Kerr and the Liberals for what they were - mere arguments of convenience, designed to obscure a preference for expedience over principle.
I felt humiliated. I had followed the issue more closely than my contemporaries, read more, understood more and been quite certain I was right - but I was wrong. More surprises were in store as my political thinking progressed over the next few months, mainly under the influence of my part-time job pumping petrol. I realised the philosophy I was developing was closer to that of the Labor Party than the Liberals. I was depressed for weeks. I kept retracing the steps in my thinking. Surely I must have reached the wrong conclusion. By mid 1977, I had joined the Labor Party.
The following year I studied constitutional law. Again the 1975 crisis, this time from a legal perspective. At the end of 1978, Kerr released his Matters for Judgment, which I started reading immediately. At the same time, I took a job in a factory during the university holidays and experienced the crushing boredom of ‘process work’. To stay sane, I retreated into thinking out a better constitutional arrangement. As I punched thousands of holes into hundreds of pieces of aluminium, four holes at a time, I had the central insight which underpins the Advancing Democracy model: many defects in the Constitution had contributed to the dismissal, but it was not necessary to fix all of them to prevent it happening again. In particular, the Senate’s power over supply could be retained provided the Governor-General’s powers were made subject to control by the House of Representatives. The best way to do this was to merge the positions of Governor-General and Speaker.
By this time, the country was exhausted by the debate over the constitutional crisis. No-one wanted to discuss it, inside the Labor Party or out.
I deferred becoming active in the Labor Party until I finished my legal studies, in mid 1981. From then, for the next 10 years, I was not so much active in the party as hyper-active. It was my unpaid second job, more important than my ‘real’ job as a solicitor. I intended to raise the constitutional issue when I attained some influence. This never happened. While I retained a traditional Labor view of the world, sceptical of market forces, the party lurched steadily and cynically to the right; a move which ensured its current terminal decline. In 1989 I was unsuccessful in my attempt to gain ALP preselection for the Federal electorate of Parramatta.
When Prime Minister Keating started the republican debate in 1993, I was already outside the ALP, voting for the Greens or independents. Mr Keating's proposal reeked of timidity - a lot of fuss about who the head of state should be; nothing at all about the powers of the position. I wrote to a few Liberals in 1994 outlining what is now the Advancing Democracy model, to see if there was any interest in outflanking Keating on the issue. There was none. The mainstream republican movement remained so blinkered in its thinking that it was pointless me participating in the debates and activism up to the 1999 referendum. Afterwards, I attended a couple of republican gatherings - Corowa in 2001 and Canberra in 2005. I mentioned my ideas to a few people and they were met with supreme disinterest.
Following the 2010 election I could see that for the first time since 1975 we were approaching a period when a conservative Liberal Government may face a hostile Senate which would be prepared to use the same tactics the Liberals used in 1975. That was the catalyst for developing the Advancing Democracy model into the comprehensive reform proposal it has now become. It remains in essence the idea I had in 1978. Except that now it is far more comprehensive, and backed by my 30 years’ experience as a solicitor. Disputes can be prevented, and if not prevented then resolved without undue damage, if everyone agrees on clear rules. Advancing Democracy comprises a set of rules which are so clear that no-one can misunderstand them, or argue about their meaning.
After clarity, the next requirement is that rules be based on principles. What is evident to me now, aged 53, which wasn’t so apparent when I was 20, is that society progresses when it accepts a principle and acts consistently with it. That is the challenge to today’s Australians - are they prepared to accept the central principle of democracy, majority rule, as the cardinal rule of our Constitution? Or will they continue on the path of expedience, hoping somehow to thwart the majority when they are not part of it? What are the consequences for stability, if the majority realises that having a majority is not enough to win?
The principled approach evident in the Advancing Democracy model will provide Australia with a far more stable system of government as it enters a very uncertain period. The alternative, to keep things as they are, will guarantee major problems in the future.
Philip Howell 1st May 2012