Westminster is bestminster

[6-minute read]

I’ve been ranting to random people all week about how much I love the Westminster System of parliamentary government (most notably used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) and figured it was about time to write my rant down for broader consumption.

Here’s three reasons why the Westminster System is so much better than the abominable hodgepodge Americans call a government and all the other dysfunctional presidential republics the world over.

1. The head of state and head of government are separate

And more importantly, the head of state is a figurehead.

The president is an odd dual-role, both head of government (and therefore responsible for running the executive branch and implementing the policies of the government) and head of state (the face of the nation at home and abroad; the person who is supposed to serve as a symbol of national unity and moral authority). In Westminster democracies, these roles are split up. The Prime Minister serves as head of government and directs the executive branch, while the Queen (or her representative) serves as head of state [1]. Insofar as the government is personified in anyone, it is personified in a non-partisan person with a circumscribed role.

This is an excellent protection against populism. There is no one person who can gather the mob to them and offer the solutions to all problems, because the office of the head of state is explicitly anti-populist [2]. In Westminster governments, any attempt at crude populism on the part of the prime minister can be countered by messages of national unity from the head of state [3].

It’s also much easier to remove the head of government in the Westminster system. Unlike the president, the prime minister serves only while they have the confidence of parliament and their party. An unpopular prime minister can be easily replaced, as Australia seems happy to demonstrate over and over. A figure like Trump could not be prime minister if their parliamentarians did not like them.

This feature is at risk from open nominating contests and especially rules that don’t allow MPs to pick the interim leader during a leadership race. In this regard, Australia is doing a much better job at exemplifying the virtues of the Westminster system than Canada or the UK (where Corbyn’s vote share is all the more surprising for how much internal strife his election caused) [4].

2. Confidence

To the Commonwealth, one of the most confusing features of American democracy is its (semi-)regular government shut downs, like the one Trump had planned for September [5]. On the other side, Americans are baffled at the seemingly random elections that Commonwealth countries have.

Her Majesty’s Prime Minister governs only so long as they have the confidence of the house. A government is only sworn in after they can prove they have confidence (via a vote of all newly elected and returning MPs). When no party has an absolute majority, things can get tense – or can go right back to the polls. We’ve observed two tense confidence votes this year, one in BC, the other in the UK.

In both these cases, no party had a clear majority of seats in the house (in Canada, we call this a minority government). In both BC and the UK, confidence was secured when a large party enlisted the help of a smaller party to provide “confidence and supply”. In this situation, the small party will vote with the government on budgets and other confidence motions, but is otherwise free to vote however they want.

The first vote of confidence isn’t the only one a government is likely to face. If the opposition thinks the government is doing a poor job, they can launch a vote of no confidence. If the motion is passed by parliament, it is dissolved for an election.

But many bills are actually confidence motions in disguise. Budgets are the “supply” side of “confidence and supply”. Losing a budget vote – sometimes archaically called “failing to secure supply” – results in parliament being dissolved for an election. This is how Ontario’s last election was called. The governing party put forward a budget they were prepared to campaign on and the opposition voted it down.

This feature prevents government shutdowns. If the government can’t agree on a budget, it has to go to the people. If time is of the essence, the Queen or her representative may ask the party that torpedoed the budget to pass a non-partisan continuing funding resolution, good until just after the election to ensure the government continues to function (as happened in Australia in 1975).

By convention, votes on major legislative promises are also motions of confidence. This helps ensure that the priorities laid out during an election campaign don’t get dropped. In a minority government situation, the opposition must decide whether it is worth another election before vetoing any of the government’s key legislative proposals. Because of this, Commonwealth governments can be surprisingly functional even without a legislative majority.

Add all of this together and you get very accountable parties. Try and enact unpopular legislation with anything less than a majority government and you’ll probably find yourself shortly facing voters. On the flip side, obstruct popular legislation and you’ll also find yourself facing voters. Imagine how the last bit of Obama’s term would have been different if the GOP had to fight an election because of the government shutdown.

3. The upper house is totally different

Many Westminster countries have bicameral legislatures, with two chambers making up parliament (New Zealand is the notable exception here). In most Westminster system countries with two chambers, the relationship between the houses is different than that in America.

The two American chambers are essentially co-equal (although the senate gets to approve treaties and budgets must originate in the house). This is not so in the Westminster system. While both chambers have equal powers in many on paper (except that money bills must often originate in the lower chamber), in practice they are very different.

By convention (and occasionally legislation) the upper chamber has its power constrained. The actual restrictions vary from country to country, but in general they forbid rejecting bills for purely partisan reasons or they prevent the upper house from messing with the budget.

The goal of the upper house in the Westminster system is to take a longer view of legislation and protect the nation from short-sighted thinking. This role is more consultative than legislative; it’s not uncommon to see a bill vetoed once, then returned to the upper chamber and assented to (sometimes with token changes, sometimes even with no changes). The upper house isn’t there to ignore the will of the people (as embodied by the lower house), just to remind them to occasionally look longer term.

This sort of system helps prevent legislate gridlock. Since the upper house tends to serve longer terms (in Canada, senators are appointed for life, for example), there is often a different majority in the upper and lower chambers. If the upper chamber was free to veto anything they didn’t like (even if the reasons were purely partisan) then nothing would ever get done.

Taken together, these features of the Westminster system prevent legislative gridlock and produce legitimate outputs of the political process. This obviates populist “I’ll fix everything myself” leaders like Trump, who seem to be an almost inevitable outcome in a perpetually gridlocked and unnavigable system (i.e. the American government).

Insofar as the Westminster system has problems, they are mostly problems of implementation and several Westminster countries have demonstrated that fundamental reform of the system is possible within the system itself. New Zealand abolished the upper house of their parliament when it proved useless. Australia switched to an elected upper house and has come up with a set of constitutional rules that prevent this from causing gridlock (here I’m thinking of the double dissolution election and joint session permitted by Australian law in response to repeated legislative failures).

Among certain people in Canada, electoral and senate reform have become contentious topics. It’s my (unpopular in millennial circles) opinion that Canada has no need of electoral reform. Get a few beers in most proponents of electoral reform and you’ll quickly find that preventing all future Conservative majorities is a much more important goal for them than any abstract concept of “fairness”. I’m not of the opinion that we should change our electoral system just because a party we didn’t like won a majority government once in the last eight elections (or three times in the past ten elections and past fifteen elections).

Senate reform may have already been accomplished, with Prime Minister Trudeau’s move to appoint only non-partisan senators and dissolve the Liberal caucus in the senate. Time will tell if this new system survives his tenure as prime minister.

In one of the articles I linked above, Prof. Joseph Heath compares the utter futility Americans feel about changing their electoral system with the indifference most Canadians feel about changing theirs. In Canada, many proponents of electoral reform specifically wanted to avoid a plebiscite, because they understand that there currently exists no legitimacy crisis sufficient to overcome the status quo bias most people feel. Reform in Canada is certainly possible, but first the system needs to be broken. Right now, the Westminster system is working admirably.


[1] Israel took many cues from Westminster governments. Its president is non-partisan and ceremonial. If Canada was every forced to give up the monarchy, I’d find this sort of presidential system acceptable. ^

[2] It’s hard to tell which is less populist; the oldest representative of one of the few remaining aristocracies, or (like in Israel or the governor-generals of the former colonies), exceptional citizens chosen for their reliability and loyalty to the current political order. ^

[3] See Governor General David Johnston’s criticism of some of Steven Harper’s campaign rhetoric. ^

[4] I’ve of the opinion that Corbyn’s “popularity” is really indicative of PM Teresa May’s unpopularity bolstered by his ability to barely surpass incredibly low expectations. ^

[5] Since rescheduled to December, in light of Hurricane Harvey. ^

2 thoughts on “Westminster is bestminster

  1. You’re probably right on many young people liking the idea of electoral reform as a way to tilt things toward the left. Since the two currently-existing parties which would be helped by electoral reform are left-wing ones, that’s the level one prediction most people are making, that a lot of people will vote “anything-but-conservative” and thus the left will win eternal victory.

    I’m not sure that’s the case, though. A lot of ridings in Ontario were only barely Liberal last election, and that was after quite a good stretch of Conservative government and in the wake of the Senate scandals and everything else. I’m not convinced that a significant chunk of people wouldn’t already put 1st choice Liberals, 2nd choice Conservatives (or vice versa) on their ballot if given the option. Given that, electoral reform might actually help the right, particularly MMP, which gives so much more power to smaller parties and thus encourages splintering. It would be pretty easy for a Michael Chong-style centre-right party (basically Progressive Conservatives 2.0) to gobble up a lot of Canadian votes that might otherwise go to the Liberals because they don’t have to placate the social conservatives, libertarians, and the emerging nationalists. The right has several chunky qualitative divisions that would make cohesive political parties. The left is harder to pin down that way, being either infinitely divided or barely divided depending on your perspective. In a first-past-the-post system, those groups all have to be under one banner to get heard but that unity also means its much easier for them to get tarred with the same brush when they are really very different. To me, the “right-wing == racist homophobe” narrative is the biggest thing stopping a lot of people from supporting anybody on the right and a system that allows the right to splinter without costing it all its power will help it. I could easily see ProgCons 2.0 working with any left-wing party and the Greens to form an overall centrist government. Or the post-Liberals make a deal with the national equivalent of the WildRose party to form some sort of government (my understanding is that the current balance of power in Germany is something like this).

    1. Yep, I think that a necessary pre-requisite of claiming benefits from switching to MMP is to list the parties you think that will exist under MMP. I fall more or less in line with you as to what the likely consequences of this will be for right-of-centre parties.

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