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Westminster System

From Academic Kids

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

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

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 which 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, older constitutions using the Westminster system may not even mention the existence of a head of government or Prime Minister, with the office's existence and role evolving outside the primary constitutional text.

Contents

Operation

In a Westminster system, the members of parliament are elected by popular vote. 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 Kiss 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 constitutional differences, 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) 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.

Many political scientists have argued that the Australian system of government was consciously devised as a blend of Westminster and the United States system of government, especially since the Australian Senate is a very powerful upper house. Hence the nickname "Washminster system". One implication is that although the Australian Senate is fully-elected, it maintains similar powers to those held by the US Senate (or the British House of Lords, prior to 1911), to block supply to a government with a majority in the lower house.

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.

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 conflict-filled 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. The distance between the lines is the length of two swords.

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 "opening of parliament" ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large ceremonial mace.

Consequences

There are a number of consequences of the Westminster system. They tend to have extremely well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual and generally suicidal for a legislator to vote against their party and in which no-confidence votes are very rare. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets in which cabinet members are politicians with independent bases of support. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak.

Another convention of the Westminster system was that, in theory, ministers were responsible for the actions of their departments. Even though government departments can be huge bureaucracies with powerful senior staff, the ministers in charge of departments would be held accountable for mistakes of their organizations, even if they were not directly involved. Such a convention of ministerial responsibility, if it ever had been explicitly followed, is now ignored, with ministers now forced to resign only when they become such an embarrassment to their government that they are too much of a political liability to leave in their post.

A related convention is that members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy, and ministers must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. Ministers are duty-bound to resign if they cannot support the government's position publicly.

Some countries under the Westminster system

See also

External links

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