A tribute to the Westminster system
A few days ago, this writer turned to Sky News Extra to see the Australian House of Representatives in session. What appeared was a spectacle of democratic governance in a style that Britain has perfected into one of her most potent exports.
Two adversarial parties stood opposing one another, bickering and jeering at one another with the most childish insults, moderated by the Speaker. The leaders on each side singled each other out, and the cross-bench cruised beneath the battles of the government and the opposition.
It was question time, a time which emphasises that no politician is all that untouchable. Like many aspects of the Westminster system, it instills humility. The oath of office, reminding each MP that none of them are above the supreme figurehead of the nation — in the Commonwealth realms, provided by a monarchy with thousands of years of heritage which sets a grand backdrop to the gameshow of politics — and its laws, the standard of referring to members of parliament by their position and the presence of the head of government among the people’s representatives instead of in a presidential palace are all reminders that no politician has any greater claim to the nation than the citizens they represent.
The separation of the offices of head of government and head of state, the latter of which is not directly elected, is an effective safeguard to the rule of law, without which democracy can’t exist. Democracy is based as much on rule of law as it is on majority rule. The head of state must sign off on bills passed by parliament, confirming they do not violate the constitution. Such an important position, which would present danger if held by some tyrant in combination to the powers of a head of government, should be above partisan politics. Thanks to Westminster, it is. In the Commonwealth realms except for Britain, the practical responsibilities of the head of government are performed by a governor-general. The governor-general is officially appointed by the Crown on the advice of the prime minister, which is enough to create a separation from partisan politics. If parliament becomes dysfunctional, the governor-general can dismiss it and call an election, letting the people decide.
The founding fathers of the United States envisioned a system of government featuring aspects present in the Westminster system, wherein the president would serve a role similar to that of a governor-general, leaving Congress to deal with almost all matters of government. South Africa, in 1984, adopted a hybrid system, with both a parliament and an elected president, and no prime minister. Several countries, including some where the word “democracy” carries irony, use hybrid systems.
Elsewhere, in countries as big as India and as small as the Bahamas, the Westminster system thrives. It blossoms in diverse countries and homogenous ones. The nature of it makes it well suited for the former kind, as those who might have their concerns quashed by the majority in a presidential system wielding massive executive power are afforded some sway in parliament. When every MP is on a level field and so is every voter, a country is a little more unified.
At the moment, the intricate system developed by slow evolution, with its unique perks from place to place, is getting by.