"Awh, Come On, Cobbers - Give Us A Fair Old Suck Of The Sav!" Tony Abbott’s assertion that he is the government and the government is him, and that the House of Representatives has no right to depose him, is not only absurdly narcissistic but dangerously unconstitutional and undemocratic.
TONY ABBOTT’S QUERULOUS CLAIM that the Australian people, alone, have the right to “fire” him, misrepresents his country’s entire political system. Even worse, it suggests that the Australian Prime Minister has begun to conflate his own narrow personal interests with the broader interests of the nation as a whole. That Australia’s political leader is so heedless of his proper constitutional function is the most vivid proof of that country’s intensifying political difficulties.
Abbott’s argument – backed, irresponsibly, by the Murdoch press – is that he has been “hired” by the Australian people on a three-year contract, and that he should, therefore, be protected from any and all leadership challenges until that contract expires at the next election.
In other words, Abbott is not really a prime minister at all, but a president. Or, perhaps, given his recent knighting of Prince Philip, a king? He is clearly of the view that effective executive authority in Australia resides not in the Cabinet, whose ministers are drawn from the two elected houses of the Australian parliament, but in his own person. As is actually the case with the USA’s Barack Obama and France’s Francois Hollande, Tony Abbott wrongly believes that the buck of ultimate political responsibility stops with him.
Quite where his view of things leaves Australia’s official Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II, and her vice-regal proxy, the Governor-General, is anybody’s guess. The same place, one imagines, as Australia’s long history of representative democracy.
Central to that history, and, indeed, to the historical evolution of representative democracy throughout the Commonwealth, is the steady expansion of the constitutional authority of the elected parliamentary chamber: the House of Commons in England and Canada, the House of Representatives in Australia and New Zealand.
Nominally, the monarch exercises sovereignty over the realms of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Historically, however, the power of the monarchy has been steadily reduced to the point where the sovereign now reigns but does not rule. It is in the body of elected representatives that sovereignty, for all practical purposes, has come to reside.
In both Australia and New Zealand the day-to-day decisions of government are made by the Sovereign’s council of ministers, the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister. But even this powerful organ of executive power is, ultimately, responsible to the elected representatives of the people. The Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers must be elected Members of Parliament, and remain in office only for so long as they enjoy the support of a majority of the House of Representatives.
The political dynamism of the Westminster system, as it has evolved over the past four hundred years, is located in the relationship between the relatively small fraction of the House that sits in Cabinet, and the much larger fraction that does not. This latter group is itself made up of those MPs who mostly vote in support of the Cabinet and those who range themselves in consistent opposition to its policies.
The survival of any “Ministry” – as the cabinet selected by the politician commanding a parliamentary majority (i.e. the Prime Minister) is rightly called – is thus dependent on that politician’s ability to retain the loyalty of the MPs who originally gave him or her the job. An effective prime minister, respected by his colleagues and warmly supported by the voting public will have little difficulty remaining in office. A prime minister who loses his colleagues’ respect and who finds him or herself despised by a majority of the electorate will (quite rightly) struggle to keep it.
Tony Abbott’s assertion that he is the government and the government is him, and that the House of Representatives has no right to depose him, is, therefore, not only absurdly narcissistic but dangerously unconstitutional and undemocratic.
It completely ignores the central reality of the Westminster system: that the Ministry must at all times enjoy the confidence of the House. If, by forfeiting the trust and support of his colleagues in the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott has called the solidity and reliability of his parliamentary majority into question, then his colleagues are perfectly entitled to depose him and install a leader with sufficient support to once again render all questions of confidence moot.
Or, as an Aussie Liberal MP might put it behind the closed doors of the Party Room:
“Tony, mate, if it was just a question of the punters hiring or firing you, we’d have no problem at all. But, as you well know, that’s not the case. If they want to fire you, sunshine, then, as things now stand, they’ll have to fire the Liberal-National Government as well. That’s us, mate! And, I’m sorry, but if you really expect us to go down with the good ship Tony Abbott, then you’re a bloody mug. With a new Prime Minister and a new Cabinet there’s every chance we can hold onto power well into the future. But, if we accept your version of the constitution, Tony, then this party has no future. So, sorry mate, but we think you ought to call it quits. For the good of the party, Tony. Piss off.”
The people don’t elect prime-ministers, parliamentarians do. But, that’s okay, because the parliamentarians are chosen by the people. In the final analysis, it’s not about them, it’s about us.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 4 February 2015.