'Good governance demands the Premier has final authority on any significant issue.'

'Good governance demands the Premier has final authority on any significant issue.'

The Premier Denis Napthine should have visited Government House on Wednesday, either on his journey to Bendigo or instead of that journey. 

His duty as leader of the government is clear. The convention we observe in this country, and have for centuries in the Western world, requires that the leader of the government must be able to command a majority of votes on the floor of the lower house at all times. 

That support must come with certainty and integrity. It is not to be conditional or subject to trade, or on a contrary whim.

The Premier knows and has known for some months that he cannot do this.

He cannot give the Governor any assurances that he commands that majority. A governor so informed would then call the Opposition Leader, who would have to inform the Governor that he too is unable to command a majority.

With that advice from the leaders, the Governor could invite them to set in chain a process that formally implements the provisions of section eight of the state constitution, and satisfies those who say the black-letter law must be followed.

Alternatively, he could, following his consultation with the leaders, form the view that majority government in Victoria, as is required by our conventions, is frustrated, and dissolve the Parliament.

Advice as to the real politics of the moment from the leaders would surely so convince the Governor.

The consequences of a failure to get a stable government are profound. It isn’t just about the passage of legislation in the Parliament and commanding control of it. It’s also about the moral authority a premier must have to carry out his office.

There is perhaps some mystique or symbolism about the role of a head of government under our system.

If a prime minister or premier does not command authority, he or she cannot meet the administrative and executive pressures that are upon them every day.

Interest groups, the bureaucracy and lobbyists would be aware of their lack of authority and would take them on. Weak governments are what they like most.

People in all those groups and others know when a leader has lost authority and will act accordingly.

I know some say the legislation of 2003, designed to marry into the Westminster conventions, is at fault. That may be so but it is no reason to bow to the black-letter lawyers who will parade their wares.

Good governance demands the Premier has final authority on any significant issue, and no head of government can be without that. Napthine needs that to competently chair cabinet.

Neville Wran once said to me that “your standing in authority in government is like a sponge. It is squeezed out on a day-to-day basis by everything you do or don’t do.”

A head of government and his ministers are at the height of their powers immediately after an election or re-election.

Those powers fall away as the term comes to an end. In the past six months of this parliamentary term, like every other head of government, the authority of the Premier has diminished. He was not elected in his own right and took office when his predecessor Ted Baillieu lost his authority and resigned. 

While it is not ideal, the fixed (four-year) parliamentary requirement means a new government will serve a term of less than six months. This is preferable to the current government limping on, challenging critics and commentators to scrape it off the Treasury benches, which may well happen in a week or two anyway.

It may be inconvenient that the fixed-term concept is inconsistent with the Westminster system.

The convention that has served us so well should not be sullied and diminished by perceived political expediency. It has been said that this is the first challenge we have experienced under the amended legislation that gave us four-year fixed-term parliaments. It is therefore all the more important that our leaders should ensure an appropriate response to what has occurred.

A hung parliament will happen again and how we shape our constitutional structure and conventions will be largely determined by how the current leaders act now.

If the key is the Governor being assured that there is a need for a fresh election, the conduct of the Parliament and the government of the past few months provides that assurance.

The leaders can and should make the position clear to the Governor.

John Cain was Labor premier of Victoria from 1982 to 1990.