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Post-script on presidential powers

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COMMENTS

28 July 2010 13:50

Now that the commotion over the so-called 'Timor Solution' has subsided somewhat, time for a small (some might say petty) clarification.*

In the uproar over the new PM's eleventh hour approach to José Ramos-Horta to request his country's accommodation of a regional refugee processing centre, most commentators dismissed the approach as a diplomatic 'gaffe', owing to Ramos-Horta's lack of powers as President. Generally, these powers were pronounced by all and sundry as 'largely ceremonial' (for example, The Daily Telegraph, Brisbane Times, and Sydney Morning Herald). One academic went so far as to tell ABC’S Lateline that:

He has no actual authority to make decisions. His role is entirely ceremonial. And so it's like talking to Quentin Bryce, our Governor General, she's a ceremonial head and Horta is in a similar position.

A look at the Timor-Leste constitution demonstrates that this is all pretty sloppy stuff. Unlike Australia's constitutional system, Timor-Leste chose for itself a semi-presidential system 'where there is a balance between the powers of the organs of sovereignty'. The position of President is somewhat more powerful, then, than that of our Governor-General:

  • the President of Timor-Leste is directly elected by the East Timorese (section 76). Ramos-Horta obtained 69 per cent of the vote against Francisco Guterres in 2007
  • the President has a right to veto any statutes (section 85(3))
  • s/he has the right to grant pardons and commute sentences
  • s/he chairs the Council of State and the Supreme Council of Defence and Security, appoints the President of the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor-General, five members of the Council of State and two for the Supreme Council of Defence and Security.

Both Ramos-Horta and Gusmao (the two Presidents of Timor-Leste since its independence) have (modestly?) downplayed their roles at times. In an address to the National Press Club on his recent Australian visit, Ramos-Horta himself referred to the scope of his powers as 'cutting cakes in weddings … and inaugurate a little school here and there … the small things he [Gusmao] nicely invite me to do it. So, I don’t have much say in such matters'. 

On day-to-day matters of state, that may well be an honest assessment of the role. On the larger question though of the validity of the Prime Minister's approach to Ramos-Horta on the refugee processing centre, The Age's Daniel Flitton seems to have got it right:

It's now clear she should have reached out to Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao too. But Coalition claims she has shown diplomatic naivety by negotiating with East Timor's ceremonial head of state are a bit rich. The Howard government was very happy to bypass East Timor's then prime minister Mari Alkatiri in 2006 when riots broke out in the country, appealing to the president to find a solution. That president, incidentally, was Gusmao.

Photo by Flickr user thaigov, used under a Creative Commons licence.

*Declaration of interest: the author interviewed Dr Ramos-Horta in November 2009 in conjunction with the pilot phase of the Lowy Institute's Leadership Mapping project. The report on the pilot phase will be released later in 2010.

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