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Westminster system's problems

By Klaas Woldring - posted Monday, 27 February 2012


The Westminster system has two serious problems. It offers a very limited choice of competent ministers and it fuses the government and the legislature.

The Westminster system originated in the UK and only exists in that country and in some of the British Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries.

It is defined asa Representative Parliamentary system in which the Ministers are "IN AND OF THE PARLIAMENT". Citizens cannot be Ministers unless they are elected to Parliament as MPs. This virtually ensures that most Ministers are functional amateurs. Also in this system there is a fusion of the legislative and executive powers. As a result the Government dominates the legislature, many would argue, to the detriment of both.

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Is this of practical importance? Very much so. If governments were not compelled to have their leaders (and ministers) elected to Parliament we might not have the problems at federal level we have right now. Bringing back Kim Beazley would be a possible compromise solution for the ALP. In Queensland the leader of the LNP, Campbell Newman may not be the Premier after the election unless he wins the election and the seat he now contests. More generally, the two drawbacks suggest that the Westminster system should be abandoned.

In a Westminster type Parliament the choice to recruit a Ministry is limited to the MPs of the Governing Party, because they have to be elected first, to be "in and of the Parliament". In Australia, federally, that adds up to a mere 110 – 120 MPs, counting both chambers together. That choice is very narrow, as about 30 Ministerial posts have to be filled. At state levels the choice is even narrower, so narrow that in Tasmania there are not enough MPs to fill all portfolios. In all other systems the choice is much wider, i.e. any eligible citizen outside the Parliament can be engaged! Not surprisingly the competence of Ministers, both at the federal and state levels, often leaves much to be desired in a Westminster system. Amazingly, Ministers are even frequently moved from one portfolio to another, after every "reshuffle".

Could this be a major factor why politicians enjoy such low esteem in Australia? Surely, it must be at least a major contributing factor. Should it not be a prime objective of reformers to improve the quality of Governments and political leadership? It may be much better for the party executives to be able to choose from the entire society. There are a huge number of outstanding potential candidates out there but they would not want to bother to go through the party pre-selection process and then be involved in election campaigns. The Westminster system rules such people out to serve the nation. As party membership is now below 0.5%, in total, this is a very serious situation indeed.

Why should the Government have to be "in and of the Parliament"? Ministers may have to be called to the legislature, to explain government policy or to answer questions, but why should they have to be "of the Parliament"? In the Westminster system they have to be and that results in the total domination of the Legislature by the Government. This is itself a very unnecessary and quite undesirable situation. It affects the independence of the legislature, especially in a two-party system. So-called "extra-parliamentary" executives are the rule in all non-Westminster systems, both in the US and all European, collegiate parliamentary systems. Australia could adopt this as well. Especially the European collegiate system, based on proportional electoral systems, would seem to be very suitable for Australia. Even more undesirable is the endless adversarial parliamentary discourse, also inherent in the Westminster system, whereby the Government is constantly being attacked by the front bench of the Opposition, presumably the alternative Government. Australians may believe that it is "natural" for politics to be conducted in this fashion but that is quite incorrect.

The theory is that the (single) Westminster type Parliament has unlimited authority. However, in Australia, the federal structure as well as the different electoral systems for lower and upper houses detract from the pure form considerably. Moreover, it also creates checks, which are usually resented by governments but have proved to be redeeming factors of the worst consequences. Overall, the combination of these systems has created an unwieldy hybrid political system in Australia that has never worked particularly well although some would claim at least adequately in practice. Particularly after 1949, when the Senate was elected on the basis of PR and gradually became a more democratic, powerful and useful Upper House, conflicts about mandates ensued frequently. The Senate's record since that year, although especially since the late 1960s, has been good. One could say that its role has been to prevent the worst effects of the inadequacies of the Westminster system especially when combined with a federal structure.

It is high time that questions should be asked why there is such widespread disenchantment with Australia's political system. The beneficiaries of this hybrid system are the major parties. Others should start the debate, perhaps by Republicans who want more than just an Australian head of state.

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About the Author

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University.

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