The political system know as responsible government, under which the executive government is chosen by, is answerable to, and may be removed by, the popularly elected house of parliament, emerged in Britain during the nineteenth century. The power and prestige of Britain caused its system of government to be widely copied around the world, though with some variations.
In this book I look at the history, recent performance, and defects of Westminster system of responsible government in the United Kingdom and in the three countries-Canada, Australia and New Zealand-which follow that system most closely. In all, twenty parliaments are examined, including those of six states in Australia and ten provinces in Canada.
The features of the Westminster system were first delineated by Walter Bagehot in 1867, and it is necessary to look in some detail at what he said, for politicians are surprisingly conservative when it comes to procedural change and Bagehot’s work is something of a bible for politicians, whether they have ever read it or not.
Nevertheless, there have been considerable changes in each of the twenty parliaments since Bagehot’s day. The growth of party discipline, in particular, has destroyed some of Bagehot’s assumptions. This has been helpful in one of the key roles of the lower houses of parliament-choosing the government. Unlike the American electoral college, which is dissolved after it has chosen the President, the Westminster equivalent-the lower house-remains in existence, and lives, in Bagehot’s words, ‘in a state of perpetual potential choice; at any moment it can choose a ruler and dismiss a ruler.’ Few would feel that such instability would result in good government, for a government constantly concerned about its survival will have little energy to spare for policy and administrative work; the experiences of minority governments in the UK and Canada during the 1970s are illuminating examples. Party discipline adds some necessary stability here.
One might ask, however, whether it is compatible with the other roles of parliament such as legislation? When there is a majority government, party discipline dictates that the cabinet is answerable not to the parliament but to the caucus of the majority party; have any of the twenty parliaments we are concerned with been able to combine majority government and tight party discipline with an effective legislature? Or has tight party discipline resulted in elective dictatorship, with the legislature being effective only when there is an unstable and ineffective government, and usually not even then?
The handling of legislation proposed by the executive government it has chosen is not the only business of the lower house. Examination of the performance of the twenty parliaments reveals that control of delegated legislation-laws made by the government or its agents under the authority of an act of parliament-is virtually non-existent in many of the twenty parliaments, and inadequate in all of them. Parliamentary supervision of government business enterprises and other non-departmental government activities is derisory. Desirable parliamentary investigations into government activities are often frustrated by party line voting. No lower house has been able to be both the decisive chooser of a government and an effective critical scrutineer of the administration of that government. Non-parliamentary structures have had to be set up to extract essential information from governments, to protect human rights, to inquire into serious administrative failures by the government, and to obtain fair treatment from the bureaucracy for individuals and organisations. These are all matters for which the government is supposed to be responsible to the parliament, but which the various parliaments have proved unable to handle.
Upper houses, where they survive, can put some controls on an elective dictatorship, but they have generally proved frail barriers. There are now only eight surviving upper houses in the twenty parliaments, and it is the constant aim of governments, if they cannot abolish them, to reduce their ability to frustrate the will of the ‘democratically elected government’. The performances, the strengths and the weaknesses, of these eight upper houses are examined in some detail in this book, for they may hold the keys to some otherwise insoluble problems.
There is no perfect system of democratic government, but serious flaws are appearing the Westminster system. These concerns are not new. Lord Bryce, writing more than 70 years ago about the decline in the power of legislatures, concluded that this was not a problem in Australia or Canada. Their standards had never been high enough, he thought, for there to be any possibility of a decline. We can hardly afford to be so cynical. My purpose in examining the twenty parliaments is to find out what reforms are needed to preserve the vital features of democracy. Since I am an Australian, and an ex-member of the Australian national Parliament (with service in each house), my focus is ultimately on what can usefully be learned from the other nineteen parliaments, and what in turn the Australian Parliament can offer them; but it will not be hard to see how the other national, state or provincial systems could with benefit reshape some of their institutions and procedures. Most important of all is to identify problems for which there are no current working solutions, and to see if any remedies can be proposed.
In this final task it is important to remember political realities. Voters may be disenchanted with politics and political systems, but they are not likely to accept dramatic changes. Any changes will have to be subtle and incremental, reversing the decline of the Westminster system, not destroying it.
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