A More Serene Democracy

When walking the cobblestoned vias of the “Città”– the capital of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino  – you might think you were wandering through an experimental miniature of the perfect society.

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The streets are clean, the food is reasonably priced, the mountain air is fresh and the mood at the Palazzo Publico – the centre of national public life – is one of calm and quiet.

From the walkways of time-preserved castle ramparts to the leafy streets outside the citadel’s main walls, it is difficult to ignore the profound sense of tranquility that irradiates the world’s smallest land-based democracy and oldest extant republic.

Even the Guardia di Rocca – the Guards of the Rock who safekeep the seat of San Marino’s government in red-and-green double-breasted jackets – are all smiles as they act the part of props in the holiday snaps of visiting tourists. Freedom without fear. Security with cheer. All this in a country that has not been to war since the Lords of Urbino laid siege to it in the 15th century.

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The obvious question then to ask is why this is – and how can such “serenità” be imported into Australia’s increasingly toxic political climate?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that San Marino’s calm is simply an accident of history and geography – enclaved as it is as a happy little pebble inside the boot of the Italian peninsula.

All the same, a visit to this tiny country also offers a teachable moment in what makes a political system successful.

Founded by a saint as a communitarian geopolitically-neutral colony during the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Christian persecutions, San Marino is today a “city on the hill” in the truest sense – a white-walled castle republic spilling down the sides of the picturesque Mount Titano.

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Aside from its defendable location, shrewd neutrality and ancient egalitarianism, San Marino also tends to a system of government called “diarchy” whereby the country’s main legislative body elects two Captains-Regent to serve as dual heads of state. Modeled off the consuls of Rome who co-ruled as a duumvirate, the Captains-Regent are rotated through every six months – the most recent being just a few weeks ago.

To Australians frustrated with the constant changes of leadership that have undermined recent Parliaments, it may seem anathema that stability can exist amidst such kinglessness.

Indeed, conventional wisdom has long had it that a recognizable face in office is tantamount to a steady hand. Australia’s perennial leadership changes have made it “the coup capital of the democratic world”, declared the BBC’s Nick Bryant. Who are we to label our neighbourhood the “arc of instability” – opined the Lowy Institute’s Shane McLeod – when Papua New Guinea’s Prime Ministerial persistence is 40% longer than Australia?

And yet, as the Sammarinese example shows, perhaps the regularity of leadership changes isn’t really the problem.

Instead of being an exercise in political blood-letting – a kind of ritualized kill-Caesar side-show as it is in Australia – this month’s transition of the Captains-Regent was orderly, mandated and polite – little more than a customary occasion that shied far away from international headlines.

By contrast, Australian changes of leadership are often discussed using violent imagery – the “spilling” of blood; incumbents as suicide bombers; “cycles of violence”; ruminations about who is Cassius and who is Brutus in the latest political subplot; cartoons depicting the sitting Parliament as a Game of Thrones-style “Red Wedding”.

Comparing this untidiness with what the Sammarinese do right, one logical conclusion is that Australia’s unstable politics is less the consequence of frequency of changes and more the correlation of two unfortunate variables – the lack of fixed terms for prime ministers and the obsessive cult of personality this engenders.

Until two weeks ago, San Marino’s Matteo Ciacci, aged 28, was the youngest serving state leader in the world. To most Sammarinese however, this factoid wasn’t remotely interesting because surely enough – as happens every six months – this particular Captain-Regent would soon be gone.

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Compare this with the amount of time Australians spend obsessing over the polling effects of Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth, Kevin Rudd’s managerial style, Julia Gillard’s gender and the religious preferences of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott. In Australia, the personal oddities and ideological quirks of the incumbent prime minister do matter because – well – technically he or she could stay in office for life. So the media, either feeding or responding to popular interest, deifies the personalities.

Even so, because of cabinet collective responsibility, the real power of a Westminster system’s prime minister is technically denuded – more now today where a toxic combo of salacious media reporting and actual palace intrigue has any Australian Prime Minister constantly looking over his or her shoulder.

But if there is any instability in the system it is not because the office of the Prime Minister is too weak or that leadership changes occur too often, it is because, in the absence of fixed terms, the public and the party are utterly obsessed with the question of who is occupying the seat at the head of the table (and who is ready-set to unseat them).

If the polls are anything to go by (and of course, recent history shows that they perhaps aren’t to be trusted) then Scott Morrison’s Liberals have scored enough own goals to all but guarantee their own immolation at this coming election.

In all likelihood, Australia will shortly experience another change in government – a new occupant in The Lodge. Inevitably, when (and if) Mr Shorten does take office, new rumours will begin to surface about the next intrigue – all of it to the detriment of the smooth efficiency of government.

This state of affairs being what it is then, perhaps the best course of action is to permanently enshrine regular changes of leadership into Australia’s system of government, just as San Marino has.

The Sammarinese model shows that timely and constitutionally-mandated changes of leadership do two things: 1.) ensure that power cannot be concentrated into the hands of any single individual and 2.) redirects the limelight away from the eccentricities of the incumbent and onto the order of the day.

Those are both healthy outcomes.

In peace-loving San Marino, the good life flows as the sun sets in tangerine tints over the Apennines.

Why not have the same in Australia?

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License plate #: “RSM01” and “RSM02”

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