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 A Prime Minister is voted on by parliament, not the people and their support can be withdrawn at any time.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.