Westminster System

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The Westminster system is a democratic, parliamentary system of government modeled after that of the United Kingdom system, as used in the Palace of Westminster, the location of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national legislatures and/or sub-national legislatures of most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations, beginning with the Canadian provinces in the mid-19th century. It is also used in Australia, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malta. There are other parliamentary systems, for example those of Germany and Italy, whose procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.


[edit] Key characteristics

Important features of the Westminster system include:

  • A head of state who is the nominal or theoretical source of executive power, holds numerous reserve powers, but in practice is a ceremonial figurehead. Examples include the British sovereign, the President of India or the Governor of the Canadian Province of Ontario.
  • A de facto head of government (or head of the executive), known as the prime minister or premier, who is officially appointed by the head of state. In practice, the head of government is almost always the leader of the largest elected party in parliament.
  • A de facto executive branch usually made up of members of the legislature with the senior members of the executive in a cabinet led by the head of government; such members execute executive authority on behalf of the nominal or theoretical executive authority.
  • The presence of opposition parties;
  • An elected legislature, with two houses in which at least one of which is elected;
  • The ability of the lower house of parliament to, by default, dismiss a government by "withholding (or blocking) Supply" (rejecting a budget), passing a no-confidence motion, or defeating a confidence motion. The Westminster system enables a government to be defeated, or forced into a general election, independently of a new government being chosen.
  • The ability for a parliament to be dissolved and elections called at any time.

Most of the procedures of the Westminster system have originated with the conventions, practices and precedents of the UK parliament, which are a part of what is known as the British constitution. Unlike the UK, most countries that use the Westminster system have codified the system in a written constitution. However convention, practices and precedents continue to play a significant role in these countries, as many constitutions do not specify important elements of procedure: for example, some older constitutions using the Westminster system do not mention the existence of the cabinet and/or the prime minister, because these offices were taken for granted by the authors of these constitutions.

[edit] Operation

The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is quite complex. In essence, there is a ceremonial figurehead who is the theoretical, nominal or de jure source of executive power within the system. In practice, such a figure does not normally exercise executive powers, even though executive authority may be exercised in his/her name. Executive authority within a Westminster System is essentially exercised by a Prime Minister, a Cabinet and other junior ministers. In the United Kingdom, the Sovereign theoretically holds executive authority, even though the PM and his Cabinet effectively implement executive powers. In a parliamentary republic like India, the President is the de jure executive, even though executive powers are essentially instituted by the PM and his Council of Ministers.

Such an executive arrangement first emerged in the United Kingdom. Historically, the British Sovereign held and directly exercised all executive authority. George I of Great Britain was the first British monarch to delegate some executive powers to a Prime Minister and a cabinet of his ministers, largely because he was also the monarch of Hanover in Germany and did not speak fluent English. Over time, arrangement continued to exercise executive authority on the Sovereign's behalf. Such a concept was reinforced in the work The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot, who emphasised the "dignified" and "efficient" aspects of government. In this sense Bagehot was stating that the Sovereign should be a focal point for the nation, whilst the PM and his Cabinet actually undertook executive decisions.

In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by popular vote, while others are appointed. All Westminster-based parliaments have a House of Commons, comprised of local, elected representatives of the people, and a smaller upper house, which can come in a variety of different forms, such as the British House of Lords (with membership previously determined only by heredity, but changed to a mixed appointment-heredity system), or the Canadian Senate (appointed by the Prime Minister). In Britain, the Commons is the de facto legislative body, while the House of Lords practices restraint in exercising its constitutional powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster countries, however, the equivalent upper house of parliament can sometimes exercise considerable power. The head of government is usually chosen by being invited to form a government (that is, an Administration), by the head of state or the representative of the head of state (that is, the governor-general), not by parliamentary vote (see Kissing Hands.) There are notable exceptions to the above in the Republic of Ireland, where the President of Ireland has a mandate through direct election, and the Taoiseach (prime minister) prior to appointment by the President of Ireland is nominated by the democratically elected lower house, Dáil Éireann.

Because of the mandate and the potentially significant constitutional powers of the Irish president, some authorities believe the Irish constitution is as similar to semi-presidential systems as it is to Westminster. Similarly, under the constitutions of some Commonwealth countries, a president or Governor-General may possess clearly significant reserve powers. One example is the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, in which the Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister, who held a majority in the Australian House of Representatives. Because of differences in their written constitutions, the formal powers of presidents and Governors-General vary greatly from one country to another. However, as Governors-General are not directly elected, they lack the popular mandate held, for example, by an Irish president. Because of this, Governors-General rarely risk the public disapproval which would result from them making unilateral and/or controversial uses of their powers.

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister, must be able either (a) to control a majority of seats within the lower house, (b) to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against them. If the parliament passes a resolution of no confidence or if the government fails to pass a major bill such as the budget, then the government must either resign so that a different government can be appointed or seek a parliamentary dissolution so that new public elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny their mandate.

Australia is exceptional in that a prime minister must have an upper house (Senate of Australia) which is willing to pass budgets. Although government is formed in the lower house (Australian House of Representatives), the support of the Senate is necessary in order to govern. To cite the prime example of its powers, the Senate maintains an ability similar to that held by the U.S. Senate (or the British House of Lords prior to 1911), to "block supply" (access to government revenue), to a party with a majority in the lower house. A government which is unable to obtain supply is usually forced to resign. Many political scientists have held that the Australian system of government was consciously devised as a blend or hybrid of the Westminster and the United States systems of government, especially since the Australian Senate is a powerful upper house like the U.S. Senate; this notion is expressed in the nickname "Washminster system". The ability of upper houses to block supply also features in the parliaments of most Australian states.

Although the dissolution of the legislature and the call for new elections is formally done by the head of state, by convention the head of state acts according to the wishes of the head of government.

In exceptional circumstances the head of state may either refuse a dissolution request, as in the King-Byng Affair, or dismiss the government, as in the Australian crisis of 1975. Either action is likely to bend or break existing conventions. The Lascelles Principles were an attempt to create a convention to cover similar situations, but have not been tested in practice.

[edit] Cabinet government

In his book "The English Constitution" which was published in 1876, Walter Bagehot emphasised the divide of the constitution into two components: the Dignified (that part which is symbolic) and the Efficient (the way things actually work and get done) and called the Efficient "Cabinet Government".[1] Although there have been many works since emphasising different aspects of the "Efficient", no one has seriously questioned Bagehot's premise that the divide exists in the Westminster system.

Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy. All Cabinet decisions are made by consensus, a vote is never taken in a Cabinet meeting. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. When a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, a lot of time is taken up in the conversations of politicians and in the news media, speculating on who will, or will not, be moved in and out of the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, because the appointment of ministers to the Cabinet and threat of dismissal from the Cabinet, is the single most powerful constitutional power which a Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government in the Westminster system.

Linked to Cabinet government is the idea, at least in theory, that ministers are responsible for the actions of their departments. It is no longer considered to be an issue of resignation if the actions of members of their department, over whom the minister has no direct control, make mistakes or formulate procedures which are not in accordance with agreed policy decisions. One of the major powers of the Prime Minister under the Westminster system is to be the arbitrator of when a fellow minister is accountable for the actions of his or her department.

The Official Opposition and other major political parties not in the Government, will mirror the governmental organisation with their own Shadow Cabinet made up of Shadow Ministers.

[edit] Criticisms

The Westminster system is often criticized for breeding a variety of political cultures which undermine its effectiveness as a truly democratic and accountable system.

The office of a Westminster prime minister is often criticized for being too powerful. As mentioned above, as he or she effectively determines when "consensus" is reached in cabinet, cabinet members do not have much independence to actively disagree with government policy, even for productive reasons. A cabinet member may be forced to resign simply for opposing one aspect of a government's agenda, even though he agrees with the majority of other proposals. Westminster cabinets also have a tendency to be very large, mostly for partisan reasons. As cabinet is the chief organ of power and influence in the government, members of parliament may resent being mere "back benchers" and thus actively lobby for a position in cabinet once their party is elected to power. The Prime Minister, who is also party leader, will have an active interest in promoting as many members of his party to cabinet as possible, which critics argue undermines the idea of a cabinet driven by meritocracy.

Westminster governments usually do not have a very strong tradition of separation of powers, in practice. Though the head of state, be it governor-general, monarch, or president, will have nominal powers to "check" those of the prime minister, in practice these individuals are usually regarded as little more than figureheads who are not expected to actively intervene in day-to-day politics, often because they lack a popular democratic mandate to do so (governors-general are usually appointed directly by the prime minister, while most Westminster presidents are chosen by parliament). Without an active check on the executive power of the prime minister, it is argued, the PM can in effect rule largely unquestioned. In particular, the ability of a Westminster prime minister to freely appoint a large variety of individuals, such as judges, cabinet ministers, and other senior bureaucrats, has long been a matter of political contention in nations such as India, Canada, and Australia.

The threat posed by non-confidence votes is often used to justify extremely well-disciplined legislative parties in Westminster systems. In order to ensure the government always has the confidence of the majority of the house, the political culture of Westminster nations often makes it highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their party. Critics argue this in turn undermines the freedom and importance of MPs in day-to-day legislating, making cabinet the only organ of government where individual legislators can aspire to influence the decisions of the government. This in turn breeds an obsession with "getting in" cabinet, as mentioned above. Likewise, strong party discipline obviously ensures that no-confidence votes are very rare, though this also eliminates the usefulness of such votes as an active way of holding an incumbent government accountable.

Lastly, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak, as most senior policy will be made at the cabinet level, regardless of what individual MPs may or may not decide in committee. Their greatest power is often the ability to force a government to reveal certain pieces of information.

[edit] Ceremonies

The Westminster system has a very distinct appearance when functioning, with many British customs incorporated into day-to-day government function. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with two rows of seats and desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two rows are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the adversarial nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties will sit in one row of seats, and the government party will sit in the other. Of course, sometimes a majority government is so large that it must use the "opposition" seats as well. In the lower house at Westminster (the House of Commons) there are lines on the floor in front of the government and opposition benches that members may cross only when exiting the chamber. It is often rumoured that the distance between the lines is that of the length of two swords although no documentary evidence exists to support this and in fact, weapons have never been allowed in the Palace of Westminister at any time.

At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the House. The speaker usually wears a black robe, and in many countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats, as well.

Other ceremonies sometimes associated with the Westminster system include an annual Speech from the Throne (or equivalent) in which the Head of State gives a special address (written by the government) to parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year, and lengthy State Opening of Parliament ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large ceremonial mace.

[edit] Some countries under the Westminster system

The Malaysian Parliament is modelled after the Westminster system.
The Malaysian Parliament is modelled after the Westminster system.

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ "The English Constitution" see Bibliography.

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] External links

Legislative systems

US Congressional · Westminster Parliamentary · German Parliamentary · Italian Parliamentary · Brazilian Congressional · Japanese Parliamentary