Parliaments and Republics

In my introductory post I stated that one of the things I thought I could bring to The League was an outsider’s perspective to American debates.  Since the relative merits of parliamentary democracy vs. a US-style Republic crops up from time to time (especially when the Senate is being particularly glacial), I thought I’d give my views on the differences between the systems, and their advantages and disadvantages.  I’ll be comparing the US system with the Westminster System, with a particular focus on New Zealand’s version as that’s what I know best.

First off let me clear up a common misconception, parliamentary democracy is not the same thing as proportional representation or coalition governments.  New Zealand voted using First Past the Post (the guy with the most votes wins) up until 1993, and the UK still uses it.  Equally, coalition government was very rare until we started using a Mixed-Member Proportional voting system.  Coalition government is still very rare in the UK (the current government notwithstanding).  What I’m talking about is how power is spread among representatives once they’ve been elected, not how you elect them in the first place.

To me, the defining difference between a parliamentary democracy and the US is that there is no clean separation between the legislature and the executive in a parliamentary democracy.  The Prime Minister has the support of the majority of the Members of Parliament, since that’s how you become Prime Minister.  But the Prime Minister also is a member of Cabinet and appoints the rest of Cabinet as they see fit, technically the Queen is the head of the executive branch but that power is latent and never used.  This is one of the reasons why parliaments have an easier time getting things done, the executive and legislature are working together, except in unusual circumstances.

Parliaments are also more fluid, at least in theory.  A Prime Minister is voted on by parliament, not the people and their support can be withdrawn at any time.  A vote of no confidence is not merely a symbolic gesture in a parliamentary democracy, should the Prime Minister ever have a vote of no confidence passed against them the Queen (or the Queen’s appointed representative outside the UK) would dissolve Parliament and call a new election.  Losing a major vote, like the Budget, would be considered as good as a vote of no confidence since any Member of Parliament that failed to vote for the Budget would also vote no confidence against the government.

Other differences are more cultural.  The party system is much stronger than it is in the US, and Members of Parliament are generally expected to vote with their party on all but a few issues.  Members that consistently went rogue would find themselves without a political career, unless they were popular enough to go independent or start a new party.  We also have a different ethos in our civil service.  The civil service is politically neutral – it serves the government of the day, but does not takes sides in the partisan struggle between political parties.  Consequently our civil service does not change leadership after an election, and officials of the civil service are not hired, promoted or fired by Cabinet Ministers.

As I see it, the advantage of a parliamentary system is that it is easier for the government to act, a parliament in which no one had a mandate to act would be dissolved immediately as soon as it became plain that a coalition couldn’t be formed.  There’s also less of an invitation to corruption, the average MP has little control over what legislation enters the house or which way they are to vote so there’s very little point in lobbying them heavily.  And Cabinet (who do have the power to set the legislative agenda) are too few in number to see too many lobbyists, and they each have access to one or more government departments full of policy analysts to advise them on the merits of anything the lobbyists propose.

But the upsides of parliamentary democracies are also its downsides.  The ease of acting comes at the expense of fewer checks and balances, the executive and legislature are always on the same team and in the UK and New Zealand you don’t have much in the way of judicial review either.  Also the greater centralisation of power makes parliamentary system makes it a bit less representative, if your MP can’t really control their participation in the legislature, they can’t represent their constituents except through trying to convince the Caucus and/or Cabinet to go their way.

Ultimately, this is a question of power vs. restraint, and everyone will have a different view as to what the optimal balance is.  I personally prefer the Parliamentary system, but that may be just a matter of home bias.

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26 thoughts on “Parliaments and Republics

  1. “The party system is much stronger than it is in the US, and Members of Parliament are generally expected to vote with their party on all but a few issues. Members that consistently went rogue would find themselves without a political career, unless they were popular enough to go independent or start a new party. ”

    This is one thing that I have never understood about parliamentary systems. Does the MP represent his constituents to the government, or does he represent his party to the constituents? If the MP pleases his constituents but pisses off his party, can the party present him from running again for his seat? Would they try to do that if he was popular (likely to win no matter which party he belonged to) with the voters?

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  2. Honestly, it’s a bit of both. The party will select someone they think can win the election, but also someone who fits well with the party’s ideology. In New Zealand at least we don’t have primaries for candidates. Each party has an internal election where the local party has some say who is nominated, and the central party has some say (the exact balance depends on the party). But since MPs are expected to toe the party line, the party affiliation of a candidate matters a lot when the election rolls around.

    Of course there are a few cases of especially charismatic or popular MPs defying their party and breaking off to form their own party. And since we have a partially proportional voting system we also have MPs who don’t have an electorate at all.

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    • Yeah, it’s a pretty basic electoral rule. Unless you’re an unusual political figure you really have to have the support of the party apparatus to get elected and if you don’t toe the line and lose that support then whoever gains it will most likely get your job.

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  3. How much discretion does the Queen or her representative actually have and exercise?

    Another, not particularly related, question: have New Zealand’s laws ever been subject to review by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in the UK? I know that in Canada, at least some types of legislation were reviewable until the 1940s (1949?).

    Finally–and please pardon my ignorance–does New Zealand have a federal system, and do you (or any of the other readers) have any thoughts on how a federal system might affect how a parliamentary system works?

    If any of these questions represents a threadjack, I apologize.

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    • The practical gap between “have” and “exercise” is a tremendous one. I don’t even have the expertise to begin listing them all. Off the top of my head the Monarch technically can dismiss parliament and call new elections at will. They can refuse to sign laws into law (but of course never does) effectively wielding a giant version of the presidential veto and are the actual ruler of the country and the actual commander in chief of the country’s armed forces (Parliamentary troops and citizens swear their loyalty to the Queen not to the Prime Minister or to a charter or constitution).

      In my mind (and as James touched lightly in his 2nd paragraph) one of the significant strengths of the Parliamentary system is that the Monarchy executive contains and stores multiple powers in itself that it holds inert and never uses. This removes those powers from the grasp of actual politicians; a highly productive division of power.

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            • In theory the need for the Queen or Governor General’s signature is a protection against a coup or other unconstitutional maneuver by the government that would at least deprive an usurper regime of legitimacy. I don’t think its ever been used in modern time though. James II dropped his Royal seal in the Thames on his way into exile after parliament (effectively) fired him and thus justified years of Jacobite rebellions, but that’s the last incident of that kind I can think of.

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          • You have the authority to do X. But if you ever do X when we don’t ask you to do X, or if you refuse to do it when we do ask you to, you will lose the power to ever do X again. And, at the end of the day, we will probably undo X if we didn’t want you to do X and we’ll do X without you if we wanted you to do it but you refused.

            So do you have the power to do X?

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            • Up until the undoing part I generally agree. In theory all politicians can only do something until the electorate knocks down the fences and hangs them from the lamp posts.

              And to answer your question: Yes, you do. Right now. And more importantly: you have the power to do X and because you do then we don’t have to (legally) assign that power to anyone else. As long as that state of affairs holds then in practice no one has the power to do X and that from the point of view of a supporter of limited government is a powerfully useful thing.

              It’s all very mushy which is to be expected from an organically evolved system like Parliament. Certainly to Americans with our constructed constitution it probably looks down right vague. But despite all those seeping wobbly bits and pulsing squishy parts it’s still an ancient system that runs some of the most prosperous countries on the planet (and doesn’t to too terrible a job of it).

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    • North’s answer on the Queen’s powers (or more precisely the Governor General’s powers since they act for the Queen) works just as well for Canada as it does New Zealand, so I’ll just refer you to him.

      New Zealand used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Privy Council, but we’ve had our own Supreme Court since the mid 00s.

      We’re not at all federal, below central government lies municipal governments and that’s it. Of course with only 4 million people I’m not sure we could support another layer of government. I don’t know how federalism would interact with a parliamentary system, but a Canadian or Australian would have a better idea.

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  4. The part of the system that bugs me is the weakness of the judiciary. With the Queen an inert executive and the practical executive an inextricable part of the legislature, only the courts and the political sensibility of the electorate can stand in the way of the laws running amok against the rights of unpopular minorities or otherwise subverting the Constitutional norms of law that ought to govern.

    I can’t speak to New Zealand, but the creation and implementation of the Human Rights Commissions in Canada is an example of what I’m talking about. A problem is identified (discrimination) and an ostensibly legitimate legislative response is formed. But in practice, the manner of enforcement endangers the free expression rights of Canadian citizens. Legislative correction of the problem is too unpopular for Parliament to address (you don’t favor discrimination, do you?), the Governor-General is effectively toothless, and without a strong judiciary to balance these competing interests you’re left with no real checks against the system running roughshod on the rights of citizens.

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    • I don’t know about Canada but in the UK the judiciary has been becoming more assertive. The problem historically is that no act of parliament is superior to any other, and since the UK’s constitutional law consists of a series of acts of parliament, parliament can change the constitution at any time. Historically judges deferred to the most recent law in the belief that even if parliament didn’t explicitly throw out the old law, by passing something that contradicted it they were implicitly throwing it out. So, for example, although the Bill of Rights from 1689 says that Englishmen have the right to bear arms, the varying laws outlawing the private ownership and use of firearms have precedence because they’re more recent.

      Since the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, and various other constitutional changes under the last government, judges have started giving laws that have clear constitutional intent (like the Convention) higher precedence. They still can’t really overturn other laws the way the US Supreme Court can, but they can refuse to enforce them on the basis of the contradiction and insist that Parliament clarify which law they want enforced. Under Labour, Tory MPs habitually grumbled about how they were going to get rid of various bits of the Human Rights Act (and indeed the Labour government actually did shred a couple of incovnenient bits about detention) but thus hasn’t happened so we can hope the new arrangement will persist.

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  5. Nice post.

    The thing that gets me is that the advantages and disadvantages of a parliamentary and particularly a unitary government strike me as also related to the type of society/polity it would govern. In a more homogenous country where social norms are fairly set, agreed upon, and form the bedrock of sociopolitical identity, then you don’t necessarily need local representation or strong checks and balances. Indeed, one could argue, their very redundancy would impede the efficiency of government and that the formal structures of government itself are comparatively less important.

    However, the more diverse the social makeup the greater the social and political value of a diversity of representation and protection for marginalized groups.

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  6. A really good discussion. Since nobody has mentioned it, I would just add that Australia’s Governor General did exercise his “reserve” royal powers in 1975 by dismissing the elected Labor government during a political stalemate in parliament. Parliament was dissolved and the conservative opposition leader was installed as caretaker Prime Minister until an election was held a few weeks later. So the reserve powers of the crown are very real and sometimes even used. But there is always an element of untrammeled executive power in any government, and the parliamentary system still seems to me to be preferable to the US model, essentially for the reasons given in the original post.

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  7. I love the “glacialness” of the US Senate, for the reasons Madison gives in Federalist #62.

    The necessity of a senate is not less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions. Examples on this subject might be cited without number…It ought, moreover, to possess great firmness, and consequently ought to hold its authority by a tenure of considerable duration.

    and even better, in theory, from before the 17th Amendment, when state legislatures appointed the senators, and theoretically held them to greater local accountability.

    The parliamentrary system is like being ruled by the House of Representatives. I’m all for the will of the people and consent of the governed, but as Madison notes the will of the people is volatile

    the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to be seduced by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions…

    The US system offers both flexibility and continuity:

    The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government. Every new election in the States is found to change one half of the representatives. From this change of men must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures. But a continual change even of good measures is inconsistent with every rule of prudence and every prospect of success. The remark is verified in private life, and becomes more just, as well as more important, in national transactions.

    Madison gives more elegant arguments in #62. Like the man says, read the whole thing.

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    • “…and even better, in theory, from before the 17th Amendment, when state legislatures appointed the senators, and theoretically held them to greater local accountability.”

      No, it would have held them in accountability to whomever was running the state legislatures.

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