Australia's woeful Westminster System

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In the second of his series on creating a better Australia, Dr Klaas Woldring casts a critical eye over our outmoded and inadequate Westminster system of government.

A citizen's choices under the Westminster System.

Australian Reconstructed (Part 2)

The Westminster System

[Read Part One: The Australian party system and proportional representation]

IT IS A STRANGE IRONY, that questioning the Westminster System is more controversial in Australia than in the UK. The two Yes Minister series on television were British products.

The Westminster system originated in the UK and only exists in that country and in some of the British Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries. Many of the positive values of that system exist in most indirect democracies, but there are at least two major differences. In the Westminster system:

(a)     there is a very limited choice of competent cabinet ministers;

(b)    there is a fusion between the government and the principal legislature.

Both problems diminish the quality of both the government and the legislature. There is no reason at all that Australia should continue with these negative features.

The Westminster System is defined asa representative parliamentary system, in which the ministers are “in and of the parliament”. Citizens cannot be ministers unless they are elected as Members of Parliament (MPs). This virtually ensures that most Ministers are functional amateurs. In the UK, the choice is from 600 MPs, minus the Opposition MPs. In Australia’s Federal Parliament, it is 150 MPs, minus the Opposition MPs.

In the states of the Australian Federation, the number is often much smaller. Sometimes, as in Tasmania, there are not enough Government MPs to fill the portfolios.

The fusion problem is equally problematical. As a result the Government and the front bench of the Opposition dominate the legislature. There is no separation of powers between the Government and Legislature. This has long been seen as undesirable.

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.  That is, recruiting a new leader from outside would be a possible compromise solution for the ALP to restore electoral stocks. People like Beazley could even be recalled from New York and drafted straight into Parliament. In Queensland, the new leader of the LNP, Campbell Newman might not have been the Premier if he had not won his seat; plainly ridiculous.

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”. Some have several portfolios.

Should it not be a prime objective of reformers to improve the quality of governments and political leadership? It would 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 tedious 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 per cent in total, this is a very serious situation indeed.

Separation of powers is desirable

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”? The system surely 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. This is not the case.

Other reflections on the Westminster system

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 often proved to be redeeming factors preventing 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 it does, at least adequately, in practice. Particularly after 1949, when the Senate was elected on the basis of P. R. 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.

Critics of abolishing Westminster

Critics have argued that the Westminster system has performed adequately, when compared with what some regard as its principal rival — the US Presidential system. However, the US system is only one and not its main rival. All extra-parliamentary executive systems are separate from the legislature.

Other critics say that the Westminster system was formed before the party system took hold, roughly around 1900, and was meant to operate for a parliament of Independents as a check on the monarchy. May be so, but this confirms even more how completely outmoded it is now.

Perhaps the most frequent criticism is based on the notion that (senior) public servants are competent, ideologically neutral, independent and professional advisers to (amateur) Ministers regardless of what party is in power. That, of course, was the objective of public service legislation from the second half of the 19th century onwards. Sadly, the reality of the situation, now, is that this is no longer the case. For the last 20 years at least, the public services have been politicized in several ways, largely on economic rationalist grounds.

(Klaas Woldring is a (now retired) Associate Professor at Southern Cross University, as well as the convenor of the Republic Now!)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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