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Political expediency, not democracy, behind Abbott’s election calls

Calls for general elections are often made by political parties when things are going well for them. That’s no secret. True to form, opposition leader Tony Abbott has made several appeals to prime minister…

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s may want an election now, but claiming that is for ‘democracy’ reasons is misleading. AAP/Lukas Coch

Calls for general elections are often made by political parties when things are going well for them. That’s no secret. True to form, opposition leader Tony Abbott has made several appeals to prime minister Julia Gillard’s sense of democracy by imploring her to call an election, and these have become more strident since the leadership spill last week.

At face value these calls appear to be inspired by an authentic belief in democracy. It’s safe to assume, however, given political reality, that Abbott would not be so keen for an election if the polls weren’t in his favour.

Upholding Westminster standards

But let’s assume he is speaking from the heart, and earnestly believes in the people’s right to an election. Would he be any nearer to having expressed an authentic vision of the democratic ideal, one whereby the people are consulted on important matters of national interest?

Westminster-derived parliamentary systems like ours are not premised on the primacy of the general election. Elections are a vital ingredient, but they are not envisaged within that constitutional system to take place at a moment’s notice any time one party thinks its superior polling results will ensure its installation as the next government. This is true even if the empirical soundness of polling were able to be guaranteed, and the public would unquestionably elect an alternative government if given the chance.

To see why, consider the following. In theory, it is possible to call an election just before the passage of every individual bill through the lower chamber, and each election could produce significantly different outcomes for the composition of that chamber. Is it possible elections might be carried so far that their administration would get in the way of any other activity in the political life of the nation? Theoretically, yes.

Under Westminster constitutions, elections come around in broadly regular cycles: cycles long enough to allow the elected government to get a chance to govern. And their regularity may be upset only in exceptional circumstances, for instance when the government loses the confidence of the lower house and a motion of “no-confidence” is carried.

This is a consequence of the particular negotiation Westminster systems achieve between representation and administration. Elections are not the irreducible basis of representative government. The object is to avoid placing any one ideal on a pedestal when there are others which stand to lose a footing if that is done.

It’s true that among the hallmarks of Westminster constitutional systems are democracy, liberty and the rule of law: but none of these ideals is strictly synonymous with the holding of elections or majoritarian rule.

No confidence for reform

What makes Abbott’s latest calls for an election especially difficult to digest is that he continued to make them after losing his bid for a no-confidence motion on Thursday. At the press conference held after the spill, Abbott had this to say:

The only way to give our country the good government that we so badly need right now at a difficult time in the life of our nation is to have an election. We cannot wait until September 14. If the prime minister was concerned about the party, if she was concerned about the country, if she was less concerned about herself and her own survival, there would be an election now.

Canberra’s political climate is shrouded in uncertainty with the possibility of an election before September. Flickr/Matt Stewart

The timing of these remarks reveals that he has little respect for constitutional convention, and (giving him the benefit of the doubt) might actually want to upgrade those conventions in a way that would make for a more democratic political system. The system isn’t perfect after all.

But it might reveal that Abbott is simply doing what any similarly placed politician would do: exploiting the resonance the idea of an election has with the voting public, while not actually intending to reform the Westminster system in Australia. Let’s not forget that he is a conservative politician.

Grounded in conservative motivations

Abbott’s appeals to democracy are therefore not just likely to be insincere. They also veil an adherence to the past and to the conventional. His book, Battlelines, does give some indication of a reformist spirit, particularly concerning questions such as federal-state relations, but even here his position is not so much reformist as revivalist, in the tradition of Robert Menzies and B.A. Santamaria.

Personally, I am far from seeing 19th century English parliamentary democracy as an untainted example of how to express the democratic ideal. Even our own constitution, which largely ratified that 19th century expression - however well it may have served and continues to serve us - is still in many respects an impossibly 19th century artifact.

But it may as well be bluntly stated that a substantial renovation of democratic practice for the 21st century is not something either the Liberal Party or the ALP would seriously consider.

Tony Abbott’s unheeded calls for an election, though they do point to something about our system that some may find unsettling, are probably coming from the last politician we should expect to ease that unsettling feeling.

Join the conversation

43 Comments sorted by

  1. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    Tony Abbot has never ceased to be in election mode, he has been constantly calling for another one since he lost the last one. "best 2 out of 3" perhaps?

    No matter how i look at it, i can't really see him as PM material. We know he stole the tea party play book and look how well that has turned out for America. Probably as well as it has done us so far.

    I wonder what consumer and business confidence would have been like for the past 3 years if he had refrained from verbally trashing our economy for his personal/political convenience.

    Message to Tony Abbot - turn up on Q&A and answer some questions, demonstrate that you are capable of being PM if you really want the job.

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    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      Not Prime Minister material?
      Here's his CV: BA Economics and Laws and MA as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (= intelligent). Trained as a seminarian and worked as a journalist, business manager, political advisor and has been an author, (= varied pre MP experience) ultramarathon runner (= fitness conscious) and member of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. (= ordinary bloke). He served in the Howard Government from 1996–1998. (= experience in government). My input in brackets, the rest are facts.
      (PS I usually vote Green)

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      gee that seminarian is the worrying bit.....

      if he's so smart why does he act like a dill for much of the time?

      hitler was an author too remember. (no comparison to ta except that fact)

      ordinary bloke - dont think the nswrfs has too many rhodes scholars

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    3. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      I would say it takes more than an education, experience or hobbies to be a PM, it also takes an ability to connect, communicate and compromise.

      In those areas, I haven't seen too much to give me confidence in how effective in that role he would ultimately be.

      What I see and others may have a different opinion, is that he is opportunistic and willing to talk down the country to aid his political ambitions, is not prepared to take unscripted questions and actively avoids scrutiny.

      Doesn't exactly engender a lot of trust.

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    4. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Colin

      A CV does not a potential PM make and here is why:

      Intelligence – I’ve no doubt that he is an intelligent individual; he’d have to be talented to have achieved his degrees. However, intelligence alone is no recommendation. He has demonstrated his use of his intellect in ways that are detrimental to the many in our society. His demonising of asylum seekers, his paying of lip service to the climate issue and his habit of telling lies, often by omission rather than by direct statements is…

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    5. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      It's a puzzle, isn't it, Colin? on paper he looks substantial and perfectly reasonable, yet in the flesh...

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    6. gregg lindsay

      retired

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Yet in the flesh...When Christopher Pyne skipped out of the chamber to counter the SINGLE vote of Craig Thomson and therefore achieved the Liberal Party goal of not accepting his vote...Tony kept running...Rhode scholar he maybe...Intelligent he maybe..unfortunately the proof is in the pudding..Tony Abbott cannot think and run at the same time.
      Being able to think on your feet is certainly a requirement to lead a country.
      TONY ABBOTT...FAIL

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    7. Venise Alstergren
      Venise Alstergren is a Friend of The Conversation.

      photographer, blogger.

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Any person who is well educated who remains committed to a fundamentalist religion and who believes a god created everything has forfeited all traces of respect and credibility. Tony Abbott is to politics what Andrew Bolt is to reason and truth; not a viable human being.

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    8. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Venise Alstergren

      I wouldn't go as far as saying "not a viable human being". Not a viable PM might be more apt, don't you think?

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  2. Markie Linhart

    Rouleur

    Don't know whether you can believe everything you see on Facebook, but a page I 'like' and trust has listed several upcoming legal issues that threaten to derail Tony Abbott's progress prior to September 14.

    Among them are the Slipper/Ashby sagas which by virtue of the involvement of LNP hopeful Mal Brough ensnare Abbott as well given his own well documented comments on the issue.

    Another is the recent threat of legal action by One Nation man David Ettridge in regard to the jailing of Pauline Hanson and Abbott's claimed involvement in a 'slush fund' (remember those) to interfere with her political 'progress'.

    We'll see whether these and other issues have legs, I guess…

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Markie Linhart

      " Don't know whether you can believe everything you see on Facebook,"
      Markie mate, what a great line and look if you do some searching online I reckon you'll find all sort of I love or love not Tony A and many will also likely profess that TA's A is about to be nailed to somewhere or something.
      Meanwhile you could be facing something with so many faces, like think of those focus groups with faceless men and they'll for sure put legs on anything and no doubt even do about faces.

      But hey, it'd sure be democracy in focus if we have the faceless wanting Tony on trial and maybe he could even do a court appearance and he could even bump into a few faceless and not so faceless if he was there on the same day as hearings into AWU or HSU matters.

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    2. Markie Linhart

      Rouleur

      In reply to Greg North

      Your patronising does you no credit Greg 'mate'.

      Not everything I rely on for information appears on Facebook. The reference to David Ettridge's story actually ran in the Fairfax press just last week - hardly the bastion of your so-called faceless men.

      Someone I openly follow is this person, who like myself, is a self declared progressive social democrat. If you care to look there there are lots of intelligent peeps out there who have faces - and they're not afraid to show them in pages like this…

      http://theaimn.com/2013/03/27/its-still-never/

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    3. Tony Grant

      Student

      In reply to Greg North

      HSU has some of Tony Abbott's people involved, I'd be careful if I were a conservative. The only thing on side for "you people" is the time issue and corrupt/inferring state conservative policing and A/G's!

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Digesting is one thing John but I cannot even get that far for I have difficulty following your plot line.
    I know Tony Abbott is abhorrent to the left and every chance will be taken to ridicule him for many things though I have not seen him claiming that an election should be held for the sake of democracy.

    He has certainly raised the question of an election and more in regard to the reference he has made to Paul Keating's words were they, something like if " You cannot govern yourselves how…

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  4. Pat Moore

    gardener

    The slavering wolf and those "Big Australians" he represents indeed "cannot wait" as he calls for the opening of the Murdoch/MSM & ABC-loosened door of the chookhouse...so much to be done/over.

    For a taste of the pace of the pre-electorally undeclared policies designed to dismantle the federal Australian state and totally outsource public services and privatize public property visit Newman's LNP paradise in Queensland where the only things not on the privatization agenda according to Newman himself…

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  5. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    It seems to me that Tony Abbott has been calling for an election since the day the Greens and Independents threw their lot in with Julia Gillard. For some (probably good) reasons they didn't trust him then. And given their failure to support his most recent 'No confidence' motion, they still don't trust him now. Obviously they would prefer to keep working with the Labor, even if the alliance is somewhat unholy.

    Even Christine Milne, who has a dig at Julia Gillard at every possible opportunity…

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  6. Rubens Camejo

    logged in via Facebook

    I can't recall where or when but recently at least, I heard someone make a very god point about Tony Abbott's call for an election and his promise of seeking a no confidence vote in the House.

    It went along the lines of that assuming the vote went against the government, Tony Abbott would drive up to the GG's office and inform her that he could form government.

    On that basis, it behoves him to outline the details of the coalition's policies for when they're in government.

    I thought it was…

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    1. Tony Boyle

      IT Consultant

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      Interesting scenario Rubens.

      If Mr. Abbott did indeed go to the GG after a no-confidence vote and took over in a caretaker mode it would not last long. Remember, he doesn't have the numbers so he could not pass any legislation - in the House of Reps or the Senate.

      The result of this, I suspect, would be for him to call a double dissolution - which is exactly what he wants. He'll then (after an election) get control of both houses and god help us all.

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  7. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    i wonder if TA is really serious about politics.

    he seems to treat his position as robin hood might see his place at the head of his band of merry men.

    he rises in parliament every session day to front the government with withering words and pithy phrases.
    its mostly devoid of substance, and even the style is suspect.

    his call for a vote of no confidence and an election is just another line from his one act play.

    he lacks sincerity and motivation except when he is up from his parliamentary…

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  8. Bob Down

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    Tony Abbott we must all remember said "I will sell everything except my arse, to get into government, even supporting a carbon tax". A man to never be trusted, like Howard with his core and non core promises. I refer you to the fact that Australia's debt to GDP ratio is only 10%, compared to 80% in the US, and others in similar ranges. Economic scaremongering from Abbott and company is just that. Our economy is the envy of a lot of other countries. Abbott of course will not mention that little gem, and will push policies of fear about budgets, boat people and refugees, catering to the lowest common denominator of his target audience. Any rational thinking being voting for Abbott is voting themselves and the country into oblivion at the hands of the coalition.

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  9. Colin MacGillivray

    Architect, retired, Sarawak

    Tony Abbott has a reasonable CV for the job he may get in September:
    Here's his CV: BA Economics and Laws and MA as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (= intelligent). Trained as a seminarian and worked as a journalist, business manager, political advisor and has been an author, (= varied pre MP experience) ultramarathon runner (= fitness conscious) and member of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. (= ordinary bloke). He served in the Howard Government from 1996–1998. (= experience in government). My input in brackets, the rest are facts.

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    1. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      are we happy to settle for reasonable? His rap from the Howard years isn't exactly glowing. I just can't shake the impression of the man as a bully, fists in the wall on either side of a female university student competitors head says a lot about a man.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      as much as i love to run the man down, that wall stunt was ... what .... 20-30 years ago.

      give the man credit for at least moving on from that sort of stuff.....besides he may have been pissed.

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    3. Robert McDougall

      Small Business Owner

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Ok pissed, sounds like a reasonable justification (sic).

      He may have learnt to channel it better these days, but I don't think he has changed that much. Don't know for sure though, we never get to see him except through the layers and layers of PR and "sound bite" exposures

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    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Robert McDougall

      being drunk is no justification for bad behaviour....my reason for mentioning it as a possibility was that it may clouded his judgement. again no excuse ultimately.

      and my use of the word "pissed" was perhaps as an (obscure) double meaning...????

      i would hope that most of us that think we are 'intelligent" are not in many respects the person we were in our youth/younger days. that may be a sad reflection or a glimmer of hope i suppose.

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    5. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Hi Stephen, Mandy speaking.
      The routine use of the criminal defence of intoxication in domestic violence was a Bolt (sic) on the landscapes of our courts for generations.
      And the alleged LNP duplicity in the Ashby/Brough/Slipper affair is recent and indeed , ongoing. Almost a case of the Star-crossed non-lovers.
      Even a cursory look at Tony "Voldemort" Abbott's history makes me want to call "Shenanigans" to the Speaker of the House, Officer Barbrady.

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  10. John Zerilli

    Tutor in Law and Philosophy, PhD Candidate at Australian National University

    Yes, it's true that in many respects Australia is the envy of the world. The perception abroad about our economic standing is justified, for the time being anyway. This leads me to think of the extradordinary achievement of the Labor Party - having had internal conflict and factional infighting plague them at least since their 2007 victory, they still managed to steer us through the GFC and pass more pages of legislation in the past two and a half years than any previous parliament. They seem to…

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    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to John Zerilli

      be careful what you wish for - as they say......

      (not suggesting you are mind you)

      perhaps there is merit in what you say about australia's attractiveness to boat peeps........it could also be we are the closest country to indonesia that provides any reasonable option.

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    2. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen

      Either way, short of using our submarine fleet, such as it is, to sink a half dozen boats to finally dissuade people from getting on boats, nothing will stop them coming this time. No Nauru, Malaysia or Manus Island or even temp visas with no family reunion will stop thousands coming here.

      We have to start thinking differently and start remembering we are dealing with human beings.

      Dealing directly with our neighbours, those we give aid to and whose people we welcome here I think…

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    3. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      One sentence above reads:

      "We should take asylum seekers per annum."

      It should read:

      We should take 20,000 asylum seekers per annum.

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    4. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to John Zerilli

      John - that's a really interesting point, isn't it, that the number of boats coming, for all the problems that may or may not cause, is a crude indicator of how good things are here!

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      hi rubens

      its a complex issue that in some ways will have no one answer to please everybody.

      essentially there are boat people and migrants - bp = illegal, m = legal.

      i am not condemning the boat people per se, merely that they are choosing firstly an illegal option, and secondly choosing a risky option.

      australia does have a program of refugee intake, which is said to be the world's highest per capita intake. we also have a migrant intake program based around skilled labor. there…

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    6. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen

      You sound a little like me in that you seem to think there is a very small chance of there ever being a solution to what we see as a problem.

      If I may; I am heartily sick of people speaking out of total ignorance and of some politicians, media outlets and media personalities encouraging that ignorance by constantly reiterating the misinformation in relation to the legality or otherwise of a person arriving within our borders for the express purpose of seeking asylum.

      Once and for…

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    7. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen

      I failed to address the "what to do" question you raised.

      As I suggested in my earlier post, there are countries we give aid to in our neighbourhood and then there is New Zealand. Those countries should be obliged to accept some refugees in order to ease the problem once people are classified as genuine refugees.

      That's one thing.

      The other is taking a different approach to housing them whisl they are being processed.

      Everybody should be detained for a few weeks until we establish…

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  11. George Harley
    George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Dogsbody

    If Julia Gillard loses a vote of no confidence, that does not mean that Tony Abbott is PM and he can't go to the GG to offer advice. It is not 1975.
    Should she lose the vote, there is no guarantee that TA would have the confidence of the house. Ms Gillard could advise the GG that she will stand down in favour of, say, Bill Shorten or even Kevin Rudd. If said replacement then achieved the numbers in the House then TA would have no say in the matter.
    Also, calling an early election has nothing to do with calling a double dissolution.
    Constitution 101.

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    1. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to George Harley

      George

      You're right on the latter an early election has nothing to do with a double dissolution. They both come about in different ways and at this point there is almost no chance of a double dissolution election before the end of 2014 at the very earliest

      That said, a vote of no confidence in the PM under the Westminster system of government means in effect a vote of no confidence in the government and convention has it that the government would relinquish all its executive positions.

      The…

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    2. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      Hi Rubens
      The GG acts on advice,conventionally. We saw what happened when Kerr used prerogative powers. I don't think we will see that again.
      If Ms Gillard loses the vote she would be obliged to visit the GG and offer advice. If that advice was that the ALP could, under another leader, gain the confidence of the house, it would be interesting if the GG ignored that advice without it being tested in the house.
      Once again, this is not 1975. I suggest the GG would dearly wish the House of Reps call the shots, not Yarralumla.
      One for the constitutional lawyers I suspect.
      And I sorta knew how a PM got the gig, you might tell that to the opposition and their supporters.
      Regards

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    3. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      Sorry Rubens
      And bye the bye, Westminster conventions mean nothing in no confidence motions, In recent history they have only been tried when a hung parliament lost a bye election.
      And I think the Canadians prorogued a parliament to avoid a motion.
      Parliament's a bitch and then you die.

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    4. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to George Harley

      Once again, George, you're partly right.

      A PM the loses the confidence of the house is obliged to visit the GG but only to resign her commission in this case. Her advice henceforth carries no weight as the GG can only take advice from her ministers.

      The course of events that would follow in this current parliament, it being a hung one, would be that the GG would call in the leader of the opposition and ask him if he is able to form government. He would then test the numbers in the house…

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    5. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      Rubens
      I still maintain that there is no "convention" regarding a hung parliament that would require a government that could (possibly) acquire the confidence of the House to stand down to an opposition that may not be able to command a majority in the House if that House chose to support an alternative PM.
      Depends on what "the GG acting on the advice of'" means.
      We will disagree.
      Also, as you seem so fond of 1975's events, why do we accept a Minister into the Government ( Bob Carr) that has never been elected by the people? It appears to contradict our constitution.
      As I said, let the lawyers argue over it.
      Regards.

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    6. Rubens Camejo

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to George Harley

      George

      On the latter point:

      I am not fond, as you say of events in 1975. I am however interested in the machinations of what went on. I think it was a very instructive period in our political history and it should serve as a point of reference to anyone that is interested in our system of government.

      All I did was to point out the series of events. I did not go into much detail nor political commentary on them. Books have been written about that aspect of the events.

      Section 15 of the…

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    7. George Harley
      George Harley is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired Dogsbody

      In reply to Rubens Camejo

      Rubens
      The post '75 changes to casual senate vacancies cleared up one problem. The constitution still states a Minister must be an MP and a MP must be directly elected by the people. Bob Carr is an MP, but was never directly elected by the people.
      I too admire Anthony's work, try out
      http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2013/03/the-first-date-for-a-half-senate-election-is-3-august.html
      And Sunny Jim Callaghan lost as a result of a bye election, those funny things. If I recall the last government in Australia that did not have a bye election was Menzies in 1949-51. No wonder the opposition were so keen to try and force one.
      Regards
      Barrack Room Constitutional Layman (DisHons)

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