Westminster system

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The British Houses of Parliament are situated within the Palace of Westminster, in London Houses.of.parliament.overall.arp.jpg
The British Houses of Parliament are situated within the Palace of Westminster, in London

The Westminster system is a parliamentary system of government developed in England, now a constituent country within the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national and subnational legislatures of most former British Empire colonies upon gaining responsible government, [1] [2] beginning with the first of the Canadian provinces in 1848 and the six Australian colonies between 1855 and 1890. [3] [4] [5] However, some former colonies have since adopted either the presidential system (Nigeria for example) or a hybrid system (like South Africa) as their form of government.

Parliamentary system form of government

A parliamentary system or parliamentary democracy is a system of democratic governance of a state where the executive derives its democratic legitimacy from its ability to command the confidence of the legislature, typically a parliament, and is also held accountable to that parliament. In a parliamentary system, the head of state is usually a person distinct from the head of government. This is in contrast to a presidential system, where the head of state often is also the head of government and, most importantly, the executive does not derive its democratic legitimacy from the legislature.

A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, often a state.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

Contents

The Westminster system of government is often contrasted with the presidential system that originated in the United States, or with the semi-presidential system, based on the government of France.

Characteristics

The Westminster system of government may include some of the following features: [6]

Sovereignty concept that a state or governing body has the right and power to govern itself without outside interference

Sovereignty is the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme authority over some polity.

A head of state is the public persona who officially represents the national unity and legitimacy of a sovereign state. Depending on the country's form of government and separation of powers, the head of state may be a ceremonial figurehead or concurrently the head of government. In a parliamentary system the head of state is the de jure leader of the nation, and there is a separate de facto leader, often with the title of prime minister. In contrast, a semi-presidential system has both heads of state and government as the leaders de facto of the nation.

In a parliamentary or semi-presidential system of government, a reserve power is a power that may be exercised by the head of state without the approval of another branch of the government. Unlike in a presidential system of government, the head of state is generally constrained by the cabinet or the legislature in a parliamentary system, and most reserve powers are usable only in certain exceptional circumstances. In some countries, reserve powers go by another name; for instance, the reserve powers of the President of Ireland are called discretionary powers.

Most of the procedures of the Westminster system originated with the conventions, practices, and precedents of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which form a part of what is known as the Constitution of the United Kingdom. Unlike the uncodified British constitution, most countries that use the Westminster system have codified the system, at least in part, in a written constitution.

Convention (norm) set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards

A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards, norms, social norms, or criteria, often taking the form of a custom.

In common law legal systems, precedent is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. Common-law legal systems place great value on deciding cases according to consistent principled rules, so that similar facts will yield similar and predictable outcomes, and observance of precedent is the mechanism by which that goal is attained. The principle by which judges are bound to precedents is known as stare decisis. Common-law precedent is a third kind of law, on equal footing with statutory law and subordinate legislation - that is, delegated legislation or regulatory law.

Parliament of the United Kingdom Supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known internationally as the UK Parliament, British Parliament, or Westminster Parliament, and domestically simply as Parliament, is the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. It alone possesses legislative supremacy and thereby ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and the overseas territories. Parliament is bicameral but has three parts, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The two houses meet in the Palace of Westminster in the City of Westminster, one of the inner boroughs of the capital city, London.

However, uncodified conventions, practices, and precedents continue to play a significant role in most countries, as many constitutions do not specify important elements of procedure: for example, some older constitutions using the Westminster system do not mention the existence of the cabinet or the prime minister, because these offices were taken for granted by the authors of these constitutions. Sometimes these conventions, reserve powers, and other influences collide in times of crisis and in such times the weaknesses of the unwritten aspects of the Westminster system, as well as the strengths of the Westminster system's flexibility, are put to the test. As an illustrative example, in the Australian constitutional crises of 1975 the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and replaced him with opposition leader Malcolm Fraser.

1975 Australian constitutional crisis constitutional crisis in Australia caused by the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by Governor-General John Kerr

The 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, also known simply as the Dismissal, has been described as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian history. It culminated on 11 November 1975 with the dismissal from office of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, who then commissioned the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party, as caretaker Prime Minister.

Gough Whitlam Australian politician, 21st Prime Minister of Australia

Edward Gough Whitlam was the 21st Prime Minister of Australia, serving from 1972 to 1975. The Leader of the Labor Party from 1967 to 1977, Whitlam led his party to power for the first time in 23 years at the 1972 election. He won the 1974 election before being controversially dismissed by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, at the climax of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis. Whitlam remains the only Australian prime minister to have his commission terminated in that manner.

Malcolm Fraser Australian politician, 22nd Prime Minister of Australia

John Malcolm Fraser was an Australian politician who served as the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia, in office from 1975 to 1983 as leader of the Liberal Party.

Summary of the Typical Structure of The Westminster Model:

Type:

Bicameral (unicameral in some circumstances)

Leadership of Parliament:

Head of State: Monarch or Ceremonial President (otherwise represented by a Vice-Regal/Governor or Governor-General)

Head of Government:

Speaker of The Upper House

Speaker of The Lower House

General:

Operation

The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is quite complex. In essence, the head of state, usually a monarch or president, is a ceremonial figurehead who is the theoretical, nominal or de jure source of executive power within the system. In practice, such a figure does not actively exercise executive powers, even though executive authority may be exercised in their name.

The head of government, usually called the prime minister or premier, will ideally have the support of a majority in the responsible house, and must in any case be able to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against the government. If the parliament passes a motion of no confidence, or refuses to pass an important 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 general elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny the government's mandate.

Executive authority within a Westminster System is essentially exercised by the Cabinet, along with more junior ministers, although the head of government usually has the dominant role within the ministry. In the United Kingdom, the sovereign theoretically holds executive authority, even though the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Cabinet effectively implement executive powers. In a parliamentary republic like India, the President is the de jure executive, even though executive powers are essentially instituted by the Prime Minister of India and the Council of Ministers. In Israel, however, executive power is vested de jure and de facto in the cabinet, and the President of Israel is de jure and de facto a ceremonial figurehead.

As an example, the Prime Minister and Cabinet (as the de facto executive body in the system) generally must seek the permission of the head of state when carrying out executive functions. If, for instance the British Prime Minister wished to dissolve parliament in order for a general election to take place, the Prime Minister is constitutionally bound to request permission from the sovereign in order to attain such a wish. This power (along with others such as appointing ministers in the government, appointing diplomats, declaring war, and signing treaties, for example) is known as the Royal Prerogative, which in modern times is exercised by the sovereign solely on the advice of the Prime Minister. Since the British sovereign is a constitutional monarch, he or she abides by the advice of his or her ministers, except when executing reserve powers in times of crisis.

This custom also occurs in other Westminster Systems in the world, in consequence from the influence of British colonial rule. In Commonwealth realms such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Prime Minister is obligated to seek permission from the Governor-General when implementing executive decisions, in a manner similar to the British practice. An analogous scenario also exists in Commonwealth republics, such as India or Trinidad and Tobago, where there is a President, though not in Israel or Japan, where the respective pri me ministers have the full legal power to implement executive decisions, and presidential (in Israel) or imperial (in Japan) approval is not required.

The head of state will often hold meetings with the head of government and cabinet, as a means of keeping abreast of governmental policy and as a means of advising, consulting and warning ministers in their actions. Such a practice takes place in the United Kingdom and India. In the UK, the sovereign holds confidential weekly meetings with the Prime Minister to discuss governmental policy and to offer her opinions and advice on issues of the day. In India, the Prime Minister is constitutionally bound to hold regular sessions with the President, in a similar manner to the aforementioned British practice. In essence, the head of state, as the theoretical executive authority, "reigns but does not rule". This phrase means that the head of state's role in government is generally ceremonial and as a result does not directly institute executive powers. The reserve powers of the head of state are sufficient to ensure compliance with some of their wishes. However, the extent of such powers varies from one country to another and is often a matter of controversy.

Such an executive arrangement first emerged in the United Kingdom. Historically, the British sovereign held and directly exercised all executive authority. George I of Great Britain (reigned 1714 to 1727) was the first British monarch to delegate some executive powers to a Prime Minister and a cabinet of the ministers,[ citation needed ] largely because he was also the monarch of Hanover in Germany and did not speak English fluently. Over time, arrangement continued to exercise executive authority on the sovereign's behalf. Such a concept was reinforced in The English Constitution (1876) by Walter Bagehot, who distinguished between the separate "dignified" and "efficient" functions of government. The sovereign should be a focal point for the nation ("dignified"), while the PM and cabinet actually undertook executive decisions ("efficient").

Role of the head of state

The head of state or his or her representative (such as a governor-general) formally appoints as the head of government whomever commands the confidence of the elected chamber of the legislature and invites him or her to form a government. In the UK, this is known as kissing hands. Although the dissolution of the legislature and the call for new elections is formally performed by the head of state, the head of state, by convention, acts according to the wishes of the head of government.

A president, monarch, or governor-general might possess clearly significant reserve powers. Examples of the use of such powers include the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 and the Canadian King–Byng affair in 1926. The Lascelles Principles were an attempt to create a convention to cover similar situations, but have not been tested in practice. Because of differences in their written constitutions, the formal powers of monarchs, governors-general, and presidents vary greatly from one country to another. However, as sovereigns and governors-general are not elected, and some presidents may not be directly elected by the people, they are often shielded from any public disapproval stemming from unilateral or controversial use of their powers.

Cabinet government

In the book The English Constitution , Walter Bagehot emphasised the divide of the constitution into two components, the Dignified (that part which is symbolic) and the Efficient (the way things actually work and get done), and called the Efficient "Cabinet Government". [9] Although there have been many works since emphasising different aspects of the "Efficient", no one has seriously questioned Bagehot's premise that the divide exists in the Westminster system, though Israel and Japan operates without the "Dignified" part of government.

Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy, a policy termed cabinet collective responsibility. All Cabinet decisions are made by consensus, a vote is rarely taken in a Cabinet meeting. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. When a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, a lot of time is taken up in the conversations of politicians and in the news media, speculating on who will, or will not, be moved in and out of the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, because the appointment of ministers to the Cabinet, and threat of dismissal from the Cabinet, is the single most powerful constitutional power which a Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government in the Westminster system.

The Official Opposition and other major political parties not in the Government, will mirror the governmental organisation with their own Shadow Cabinet made up of Shadow Ministers.

Bicameral and unicameral parliaments

Canadian Parliament at night Canadian Parliament at night.jpg
Canadian Parliament at night
The Sansad Bhavan (sNsd bhvn) (Parliament House) building in New Delhi, India New Delhi government block 03-2016 img3.jpg
The Sansad Bhavan (संसद भवन) (Parliament House) building in New Delhi, India
Knesset Building, Jerusalem Knesset Building (South Side).JPG
Knesset Building, Jerusalem
National Diet, Tokyo, Japan Diet of Japan Kokkai 2009.jpg
National Diet, Tokyo, Japan
Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, Dhaka, Bangladesh Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (Roehl).jpg
Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, Dhaka, Bangladesh
The Parliament building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia MalaysianParliament.jpg
The Parliament building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Dail Eireann building Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland LeinsterHouseDublin2010.JPG
Dáil Éireann building Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland

In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by popular vote, while others are appointed. Nearly all Westminster-based parliaments have a lower house with powers based on those of the House of Commons (under various names), comprising local, elected representatives of the people (with the only exception being elected entirely by nationwide Proportional Representation). Most also have a smaller upper house, which is made up of members chosen by various methods:

In the UK, the lower house is the de facto legislative body, while the upper house practices restraint in exercising its constitutional powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster countries, however, the upper house can sometimes exercise considerable power.

Some Westminster-derived parliaments are unicameral for two reasons:

Hong Kong, a former British crown colony and currently a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China, has a unicameral Legislative Council. While the Legislative Councils in British Australasian and North American colonies were unelected upper houses and some of them had since abolished themselves, the Legislative Council of Hong Kong has remained the sole chamber and had in 1995 evolved into a fully elected house, yet only part of the seats are returned by universal suffrage. Responsible government was never granted during British colonial rule, and the Governor remained the head of government until the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, when the role was replaced by the Chief Executive. Secretaries had remained to be chosen by the Chief Executive not from the Legislative Council, and their appointments need not be approved by the Legislative Council. Although essentially more presidential than parliamentary, the Legislative Council had inherited many elements of the Westminster system, including parliamentary powers, privileges and immunity, and the right to conduct inquiries, amongst others. Minutes are known as Hansards, and the theme colour of the meeting chamber is red as in other upper houses. Government secretaries and other officials are seated on the right hand side of the President in the chamber. The Chief Executive may dissolve the Legislative Council under certain conditions, and is obliged to resign, e.g., when a re-elected Legislative Council passes again a bill that he or she had refused to sign.

'Washminster' system of Australia

The Australian Senate Australian Senate - Parliament of Australia.jpg
The Australian Senate

Australia is, in many respects, a unique hybrid with influences from the United States Constitution as well as from the traditions and conventions of the Westminster system. Australia is exceptional because the government faces a fully elected upper house, the Senate, which must be willing to pass all its legislation. Although government is formed in the lower house, the House of Representatives, the support of the Senate is necessary in order to govern. The Senate maintains the ability similar to that held by the British House of Lords, prior to the enactment of the Parliament Act 1911, to block supply against the government of the day. A government that is unable to obtain supply can be dismissed by the Governor-General: however, this is generally considered a last resort and is a highly controversial decision to take, given the conflict between the traditional concept of confidence as derived from the lower house and the ability of the Senate to block supply. Many political scientists have held that the Australian system of government was consciously devised as a blend or hybrid of the Westminster and the United States systems of government, especially since the Australian Senate is a powerful upper house like the U.S. Senate; this notion is expressed in the nickname "the Washminster mutation". [11] The ability of upper houses to block supply also features in the parliaments of most Australian states.

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, and in some countries with a perpendicular row of seats and desks at the furthermost point from the Speaker's Chair at the opposite end of the chamber. In the Australian Parliament, in both the Upper House (Senate) and the Lower House (House of Representatives), the rows of chairs and desks are rounded at the end, opposite to the Speaker's Chair. This area in which the rows are rounded at one end of the chamber, is usually where the independent parties and minor parties are situated. The chairs in which both the government and opposition sit, are positioned so that the two rows are facing each other. This arrangement is said to have derived from an early Parliament which was held in a church choir. 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. It is often rumoured that the distance between the lines is that of the length of two swords although no documentary evidence exists to support this and, in fact, weapons have never been allowed in the Palace of Westminster at any time.

At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the House. The speaker usually wears black robes, and in some countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats, as well. These narrow tables in the centre of the chamber, is usually where ministers or members of the house come to speak.

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 State Opening of Parliament ceremonies that often involve the presentation of a large ceremonial mace.

Current countries

Countries that use variations on the theme of the Westminster system, as of 2018, include the following:

CountryParliamentSystem of Govt.Notes
Flag of Antigua and Barbuda.svg Antigua and Barbuda Parliament:
Senate
House of Representatives
Monarchy
Flag of Australia (converted).svg Australia Parliament:
Senate
House of Representatives
Monarchy Federated Nation, meaning that the power to govern the country and its people, is shared and divided between national and state governments.
Flag of the Bahamas.svg The Bahamas Parliament:
Senate
House of Assembly
Monarchy
Flag of Bermuda.svg Bermuda Parliament:
Senate of Bermuda
House of Assembly
Monarchy
Flag of Bangladesh.svg Bangladesh Jatiya Sangsad Republic
Flag of Barbados.svg Barbados Parliament:
Senate
House of Assembly
Monarchy
Flag of Belize.svg Belize National Assembly:
Senate
House of Assembly
Monarchy
Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Canada Parliament of Canada:
Senate
House of Commons
Monarchy Federated Nation, meaning that the power to govern the country and its people, is shared and divided between national and provincial governments.
Flag of Dominica.svg Dominica House of Assembly Republic
Flag of Grenada.svg Grenada Parliament:
Senate
House of Representatives
Monarchy
Flag of India.svg India Parliament:
Rajya Sabha
Lok Sabha
Republic Federated Nation, meaning that the power to govern the country and its people, is shared and divided between national and state governments.
Flag of Ireland.svg Ireland Oireachtas:
Seanad Éireann
Dáil Éireann
Republic
Flag of Israel.svg Israel Knesset RepublicDisintermediated Westminster system: Powers which would have been exercised by the President of Israel are divided between the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the speaker of the legislature.
Flag of Japan.svg Japan National Diet:
House of Councillors
House of Representatives
Monarchy Disintermediated Westminster system: many non-reserve powers which would have been exercised by the Emperor of Japan on the advice of the Cabinet in an unmodified system are exercised directly by the Prime Minister, and Imperial reserve powers do not exist.
Flag of Jamaica.svg Jamaica Parliament:
Senate
House of Representatives
Monarchy
Flag of Kuwait.svg Kuwait National Assembly Monarchy
Flag of Malaysia.svg Malaysia Parliament:
Dewan Negara
Dewan Rakyat
Constitutional monarchy The Yang-di-Pertuan Agong shares characteristics of heads of state in both monarchies and republics.
Flag of Malta.svg Malta Parliament Republic
Flag of Mauritius.svg Mauritius National Assembly Republic
Flag of Nauru.svg Nauru Parliament Republic
Flag of Nepal.svg Nepal Parliament Republic [12]
Flag of New Zealand.svg New Zealand Parliament Monarchy
Flag of Pakistan.svg Pakistan Parliament:
Senate
National Assembly
Islamic Republic
Flag of Papua New Guinea.svg Papua New Guinea Parliament Monarchy
Flag of Saint Kitts and Nevis.svg Saint Kitts and Nevis National Assembly Monarchy
Flag of Saint Lucia.svg Saint Lucia Parliament:
Senate
House of Assembly
Monarchy
Flag of Singapore.svg Singapore Parliament Republic
Flag of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.svg Saint Vincent and the Grenadines House of Assembly Monarchy
Flag of the Solomon Islands.svg Solomon Islands Parliament of the Solomon Islands Monarchy
Flag of Trinidad and Tobago.svg Trinidad and Tobago Parliament:
Senate
House of Representatives
Republic
Flag of Tuvalu.svg Tuvalu Parliament Monarchy
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom Parliament:
House of Lords
House of Commons
Monarchy
Flag of Vanuatu.svg Vanuatu Parliament Republic

Former countries

The Westminster system was adopted by a number of countries which subsequently evolved or reformed their system of government departing from the original model. In some cases, certain aspects of the Westminster system were retained or codified in their constitutions. For instance South Africa and Botswana, unlike Commonwealth realms or parliamentary republics such as India, have a combined head of state and head of government but the President remains responsible to the lower house of parliament; it elects the President at the beginning of a new Parliament, or when there is a vacancy in the office, or when the sitting President is defeated on a vote of confidence. If the Parliament cannot elect a new President within a short period of time (a week to a month) the lower house is dissolved and new elections are called.

See also

Related Research Articles

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