an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘separation of powers’ Category

more on the slo-mo train wreck – just look at the USA

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much truth in this, sadly

What is the greatest weakness of democracy?

The answer has been the same for over 2500 years. The possibility/likelihood of demagoguery and mob rule. It’s one of the reasons why we don’t have direct democracy – though there’s something close to a version of it in the USA. We have representative democracy, which is actually a check on ‘too much democracy’, because the representatives who are then voted on by the people (and I’m talking here about our Westminster system and to a lesser extent the US congressional system) are given their opportunity to serve in parliament/congress by an ‘elite’, or an in-group (of course there are problems with in-groups which I won’t get into here). Often they’re tapped on the shoulder or receive a late night phone call from a party apparatchik and told ‘X is retiring at the next election and I notice you’ve been active in that electorate and have held position A and B for the party, would you be interested in running for the seat?’ It’s likely the apparatchik isn’t operating on her own initiative – party officials have been observing the prospective candidate and how many party boxes she’s been ticking. So there’s this behind-the-scenes selection process going on before anything ‘democratic’ occurs. And this, IMHO, is a good thing. You don’t want just anybody even helping to run the country, let alone running it. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there no Presidents, Vice Presidents or powerful unelected officials selected by the President. Yes there are chiefs of staff, private secretaries and advisors in official and unofficial capacities, but there is no unelected Secretary of State, Defence, the Treasury and so forth, who all owe their jobs to the President, albeit subject to some review.

Under the Westminster system there is a head of state whose position is entirely ceremonial. Everything she signs is at the direction of the party elected to power. That party has a leader, the Prime Minister, the first minister, primus inter pares, first among equals, the captain of the team. She works in the parliament, sitting alongside her colleagues, opposite her opposite number, consulting, sparring, winning debates, losing debates, triumphing and being humiliated on a daily basis. There’s no separate ‘executive’ space, there are no veto powers, shut-down powers, special executive powers and the like. Pardoning powers are limited, and not granted to the Prime Minister. In Australia, that power is granted to the Attorney-General, in Britain to the Lord Chancellor, but decisions are made in consultation with the whole of government. Power, in short, is more distributed under the Westminster system, and this is surely a good thing. I mean, just look at the USA.

Under the Westminster system there is only one set of national elections, not two. Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the four primary predominantly English-speaking nations who use the system – all vary as to electoral terms. In Australia, elections are held approximately every 3 years, but on no fixed dates (but elections are always held on a Saturday, and voting is compulsory). These elections are roughly similar to the US mid-term elections. People vote for their local member, based on that member’s campaign, her personal qualities, and the platform of the party she belongs to, if any. There are two major parties, of the right and left, and each party has its leader, elected by elected members of parliament. If that party holds power, she will be the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister therefore holds her position at the behest of the governing party. If the governing (or any) party loses faith in its leader, they can oust her through a vote of no-confidence, after which they will hold an internal round of voting for a new leader. The ousted leader then may or may not hold another cabinet position in government, or go to the ‘back bench’ as an ordinary elected MP. Thus, a Prime Minister may be removed from office between elections, though this is generally inadvisable as it is seen by the public as destabilising. It is a very different case, however, from removing a President from office, about which there appears to be no clear guidelines. The heavy reliance upon a President and his powers and duties appears to have created a degree of paralysis when it becomes clear that the President is manifestly unfit for office and has engaged in criminal activities before becoming President, during his campaign, and while in office. Under the Westminster system such a person would have been removed from office well before now, and it’s unlikely that such a person would ever have been placed in that office in the first place, since her appeal would not be directly to the people but to the party she is a member of. A person with an extremely shady reputation would be unlikely to appeal to a political party obsessed with the lack of rectitude of its opposite number, and therefore with its own rectitude.

A note on the separation of powers. The idea originated with Montesquieu (1748) who separated the duties of government into three, the legislative, the executive and the judicial. However, under the Westminster system, the legislative and executive branches are essentially fused. This may have strengths and weaknesses, which are alleviated through oppositional and bicameral scrutiny, as well as the democratic process. The executive and the legislative forces of government are always in dynamic interaction, so that too much fusion and too much separation can be inimical to good government. In the USA, the physical separation between the legislative and the executive appears to be the source of a wealth of political problems.

Under the Westminster system there is no direct election of any person or persons by the whole nation, either through an electoral college or by means of a first-past-the-post nationwide vote. This is a useful if not essential curb to the dangers of demagoguery. Although there is no official screening of candidates (as I believe there should be), by means, for example, of a basic political literacy test, involving an understanding of the nation’s political and legal structures, its political history, the separation of powers and other pertinent matters (scientific literacy might be included), there is at least some screening to ensure party loyalty and understanding of party policies and goals. The Presidential electoral system involves no screening, formal or informal, a fact which some people appear to view with pride.

There is no immunity from criminal prosecution for a Prime Minister in Australia, Britain, Canada or New Zealand. The Queen as titular head of state, and her representatives (the Governor-General in Australia) may be immune, but that’s hardly an issue for government. There are some protections from civil proceedings while in office, but it would be an expectation that criminal acts of politicians would be treated like those of anyone else, or even more expeditiously considering the position of public trust they hold. Although such criminal proceedings would be scandalous, they need not affect government to a debilitating degree because of the distributed nature of political power and the flexibility of government roles under the Westminster system – unless, of course, the criminality was spread throughout government or opposition ranks, which would be a rare thing. In any case, look at the USA for comparison.

Under the Westminster system there is, of course, no such thing as impeachment. That’s because illegal conduct is dealt with by the law, and other ‘conduct unbecoming’ or conduct contrary to party ideology or ethics is dealt with by no-confidence motions. A no-confidence motion needs no external justification other than that the leader has lost the confidence of her party. If the electorate as a whole disagrees with the motion it will make its view clear at the next election, or at by-elections, which can serve to restrict the power of government, or send a message by reducing its majority.

Finally, there appears to be another, perhaps less tangible difference between Westminster system countries and the Presidential system of the USA. It is rare to hear residents of Westminster system countries representing themselves as partakers of the world’s first and greatest democracy, leaders of the free world, the light on the hill and so forth. Nationalism and jingoism appears to permeate US society like no other. Such parochialism isn’t conducive to self-analysis and reform. It needs to be pointed out, if we wish to talk of ‘true democracy’, that no nation was ever anywhere near full democracy until it granted full voting rights to the female half of the population. On that very reasonable basis, New Zealand was the first true democracy. Australia, Britain and Canada all granted women the right to vote before the USA did – though in Australia, Aboriginal people of both genders weren’t granted the vote until 1962, so Australia cannot be considered a true democracy till that date. But the US Presidential system, in its difference, also represents something else – US individualism, as represented in many Hollywood movies in which one quasi-superhero saves the world more or less single-handed in the teeth of official lethargy, incompetence or corruption. It can be argued that nations can be found on an individualist-collectivist spectrum, with the USA somewhat at one end of the spectrum, the individualist end, and a country like Japan close to the collectivist end. The problem with individualism is a lack of trust in government – if not a lack of trust in each other – resulting in poor support for collective action on education, health and other social goods, and also high incarceration rates. Collectivism suffers the opposite problem, lack of willingness to speak out, to criticise, to behave differently, to seek reform when needed, though it also tends to mean reduced crime rates and genuine respect for others.

What this means for the genuine crisis the USA finds itself in is anyone’s guess. Having allowed a person with no moral compass and little understanding of the world to bypass the checks and balances of party allegiance and teamwork by appealing to a sector of the population which he actively despises (people who actually work for a living, or try to) in order to become their all-too-powerful President, the USA has deservedly lost a great deal of standing in the global community. And because of the way their system operates – so very differently from the Westminster system – the slow-motion train wreck which began with this person’s ascension to the Presidency is very far from over, and one really begins to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of the US ascendency. I for one hope not. The USA is a great, flawed nation. It can do better than this. It can recover. It can reform itself. It might look, for starters, at the Westminster system.

Written by stewart henderson

March 3, 2019 at 8:38 pm