The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

I frequently refer to the “Westminster system of parliamentary government” in posts, and thought it might be a good idea to fully explain how the Westminster system of government works.

The Westminster System of Parliamentary Government

The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom, as used in the Palace of Westminster, the location of the UK parliament. The system is a series of conventions and procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once also used, in most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations. There are other parliamentary systems, for example those of various European countries, whose procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

  1. a head of state, who is different from the head of government, and who may possess reserve powers, which are not normally exercised, and whose role is largely ceremonial. In most countries, this is either a monarch or a representative of the monarch (e.g. Governor General), or a president;
  2. a head of government (usually called the Prime Minister or Premier or First Minister) who is appointed by the head of state, but who, by convention, must have the support of the majority of the Members of Parliament;
  3. an executive branch, usually called the Cabinet, made up of Members of the legislature and led by the head of government;
  4. the presence of opposition parties;
  5. an elected legislature, or a system in which one house is elected and the other appointed, although in some countries with bicameral systems, both Houses are elected;
  6. the confidence convention, by which the lower House can dismiss a government by either withholding Supply (not passing the budget) or via a vote of non-confidence (either by passing a motion of non-confidence or defeating some other measure which was deemed a matter of confidence);
  7. parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any issue deemed by itself to be relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from defamatory statements or records thereof;
  8. a parliament which can be dissolved and elections called at any time, even when there exists fixed election dates.

Most of the procedures of the Westminster system 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 (e.g. Canada’s) 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.

Operation

The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is complex. The head of state exercises a largely ceremonial role, even though they are the de jure source of executive power. The head of state does not normally exercise their executive powers; rather, these powers are exercised in their name by the head of government (Prime Minister),  the Cabinet and other junior ministers. For example, in the UK, the Queen theoretically holds executive authority, even though the PM 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 PM and his Council of Ministers.

In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by popular vote, while others may be appointed. Most Westminster-based parliaments which are bicameral have a House of Commons or House of Representatives, comprised of local, elected representatives of the people, and an upper house, which can come in a variety of different forms, such as the British House of Lords (with membership previously determined only by heredity, but changed to a mixed appointment-heredity system), or the Canadian Senate (appointed by the Prime Minister), or the Australian Senate (elected using a proportional system, the Single Transferable Vote). In Britain, the Commons is the de facto legislative body, while the House of Lords practices restraint in exercising its constitutional powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster countries, however, the equivalent upper house of parliament can sometimes exercise considerable power. The head of government is usually chosen by being invited to form a government by the head of state or the representative of the head of state (e.g. the Governor General), not by parliamentary vote. 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. In two of the Canadian territories, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, which don’t have political parties but a system of consensus government, the Premier is elected by the other Members of the legislature.

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister, must be able to either control a majority of seats within the lower house,  or to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against his or her government. If the parliament passes a motion 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 elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny their mandate. In bicameral jurisdictions, government is formed in the lower house alone. 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.

Cabinet Government

Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy. All Cabinet decisions are normally made by consensus. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. A cabinet member may be forced to resign, or may choose to resign, if they oppose one aspect of a government’s agenda. The power to appoint ministers to the Cabinet – and to dismiss them – is perhaps the single most powerful constitutional power which a Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government in the Westminster system.

Linked to Cabinet government is the idea, at least in theory, that ministers are responsible for the actions of their departments. It is no longer considered to be an issue of resignation if the actions of members of their department, over whom the minister has no direct control, make mistakes or formulate procedures which are not in accordance with agreed policy decisions. One of the major powers of the Prime Minister under the Westminster system is to be the arbitrator of when a fellow minister is accountable for the actions of his or her department.

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.

Consequences

The Westminster system is characterized by the presence of well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their own party, whether they are part of the governing party or an opposition party, and in which no-confidence votes are very rare occurrences, usually occurring only during times of minority government. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminster systems tend to be weak, though they often have the ability to force a government to reveal certain pieces of information. The degree to which this is true varies from one jurisdiction to another, of course. Party discipline is extremely strong in Canada and Australia, but much less so in the United Kingdom. Also, recent reforms of select committees in the UK have given committees there much more independence and influence.

Ceremonies and Traditions

Parliaments using the Westminster system are greatly influenced by, and continue to follow many very ancient British customs. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with rows of seats or desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two sides are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the adversarial nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties sit on the side to the left of the Speaker, and the government party will sit to the Speaker’s right. This is how the UK House of Commons and the Canadian House of Commons are laid out, but the Australian House of Representatives and New Zealand parliament are not. Those two chambers both adopted a horseshoe arrangement, but the government side is still to the right of the Speaker and the opposition parties to the left. Tradition holds that the distance between the to sides in the UK House of Commons 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 a black robe, and in many countries, a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between the two rows of seats.

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 carried by the Sergeant-at-Arms.

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