an autodidact meets a dilettante…

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

Archive for the ‘Westminster system’ 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

why the US has one of the worst political systems in the democratic world, and why they’re unlikely to change it

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I think this may be the longest title of any blog piece I’ve written, but that’s not the only reason why few will read it. After all, most of my readers are from the USA, and they’ll be put off by the title for other reasons. Anyway, here goes.

Of course I’m not really qualified to rank all the democratic political systems out there – I’m no expert on the German, French or Spanish systems, or those of the Scandinavian countries – but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that few if any other other democratic states would accord as much power to one person as the USA does.

I’ve been on a steep learning curve re the US system, but of course there’s plenty I still don’t know about. I live under a variant of the Westminster system here in Australia, and that’s the system I’m most familiar with, and as a British/Australian duel citizen, and a sometime student of British history, I know a fair amount about the origins of parliamentary democracy in Britain. The Westminster system of course, has other variants in New Zealand, Canada and other countries formerly under the British Empire, including India, Pakistan and South Africa, but my focus here will be on Australia as fairly typical of democracy at least in the English-speaking countries other than the US. And don’t forget I’m no expert generally, being an autodidact/dilettante, but I like to think I’m a keen observer, and don’t we all?

This my view: I’ve learned enough about the US political system – the Presidential system in particular – in the past 12 months to drop my jaw to the floor and keep it there for most of that period. It really is a shocker.

I’ll summarise, then expand. The US directly elects its President – a really bad idea. There’s no vetting of Presidential candidates: Americans like to boast that anyone can become Prez. Do you really want just anyone to be given that responsibility? Once elected, nominally as a representative of one of the two major parties, the President sets up office completely separately from the Congress/Parliament in which the two major parties, together with smaller parties and independents, battle it out to run the government to their liking, ideologically speaking. Or is it the President who runs the government? It’s confusing. The President, in his separate, isolated sphere, has veto powers, pardoning powers, special executive powers, emergency powers, power to shut down the government, power to appoint members of the judiciary, power to appoint a host of unelected and very powerful officials and to hire and fire at will, with limited oversight. The President is, apparently, not legally required to announce conflicts of interest, or present any account of his finances, and is at liberty, or certainly appears to be at liberty, to enrich himself and his family by virtue of holding the office of President. The President, by virtue of his office, is immune from prosecution, during his time in office, for any crime committed before, during, or in order to obtain, his Presidency – or such is the view held by a substantial proportion of the legal profession.

And yet the vast majority of American citizens don’t believe they’re living in a Banana Republic. On the contrary, they believe they’re living in the Greatest Democracy on Earth, the Greatest Nation on Earth, the Leader of the Free World, the Shining Light on the Hill, etc, etc, etc – and of course it’s this jingoism, this lack of self-critical insight (with many, but not enough, honourable exceptions) that will make it so hard to effect change when Trump is dumped..

So, let’s start with direct election. It doesn’t happen under the Westminster system. In Australia we have general elections every three years. We vote for a local member in our electorate (in the US they’re called districts) as well as for the party of our choice federally. That’s to say, our general elections are the equivalent of the US mid-terms, only more important, as we don’t have a Presidential election. So, if the US had a similar system to us, their recent election would be the general election, the Democrats would have won government from the Republicans in a landslide, and the new Prime Minister, the leader of the Dems in the House, would be Nancy Pelosi, taking over from the retiring PM, Paul Ryan. Chuck Schumer, the leader in the Senate, would probably take up the position of Deputy PM, and the positions of Treasurer, Attorney-General, Foreign Minister etc, would have already been decided before the election, as they would have been the opposition spokespersons for those positions (aka shadow Attorney-General, shadow Treasurer, etc). The Prime Minister would have the power to swap those positions around and introduce new blood (called a Cabinet reshuffle), but of course all of these persons would have won their local electorates in the elections. Most would be experienced in the parliamentary system.

Under the US Presidential system, the whole nation is asked to choose between two candidates, usually a leftist or a rightist. There are of course caucuses and primaries, which basically ‘weed out’ the less popular candidates until only two are left standing. But this system is so separate from Congress that it’s possible for anyone to run, and to win, regardless of political experience, historical knowledge or any other sort of nous – though having a lot of money, or a lot of rich backers, is virtually essential to success. In the case of Trump, his relentless branding of himself as a successful businessman and super-smart outsider was enough to fool many of the least thoughtful and most disadvantaged Americans, as well as to convince many of the crooked rich that he might prove a useful tool. And so Trump, in spite of being super-incompetent, ethically moribund and a total financial fraud, won the election… or, rather, won the electoral college, probably with the assistance of foreign agents.

The major flaw of this kind of direct democracy was pointed out almost 2,500 years ago by the ancient Greek philosophers, who were unabashed anti-democratic elitists. They’d seen how ‘the mob’ could be swayed by windy orators who promised to fix problems and to bring great success and richesse at little cost. One of them, Creon, persuaded the Athenians to embark on a disastrous campaign against the city-state of Syracuse, which so depleted Athenian resources that they were overrun by the Spartans, which ended the Peloponnesian War and the Athenian ascendancy once and for all.

Trump won’t do that kind of damage to the USA, but he’s already damaged America’s reputation for decades to come, as well as selling out his base, endangering the lives of immigrants, massively neglecting the business of running his country in all its essential minutiae, and filling the swamp to overflowing.

So what’s the solution to this direct election process? It doesn’t need to be jettisoned, but it can be improved (though I’m for ditching the Presidential system entirely). You can replace the electoral college with a first past the post (or winner takes all) system. Of course, if that system were in place in 2016, Hillary Clinton would be President. More importantly, though, the electoral college system is easier for interfering agents to manipulate, by focusing attention on ‘purple’ electorates, as was done in 2016. A more centralised system would be easier to keep ‘clean’ , and would require a very sophisticated, equally centralised hacking and propaganda campaign to manipulate. Besides that, it is obviously fairer. The person who wins most votes nationwide should surely be the nation’s President.

Then there is vetting. Here’s where I display my elitism. Every candidate for President should have to submit to testing, regarding the nation’s politico-judicial system, its constitution, its history, its network of foreign and trade relations, and, a hobby-horse of mine, its science and technology sector (since achievements in this sector have changed lives far far more than any political achievements). You don’t want an ignoramus to be your President ever again.

Of course there’s also financial and legal vetting. The Emoluments Clause appears to lack claws. This should be turned into solid, unequivocal law.

The legal position of the President should also be clarified. As the Chief Law Officer of the nation he should never be considered above the law. Having said that, the Attorney-General should be the first law officer, not the President. Other powers of the President need to be reassessed in a root-and-branch fashion – pardoning powers, veto powers, special executive powers and so-called emergency powers. Clearly, to accord vast and manifold powers to one person, and then to consider him immune from prosecution because of the powers so accorded, is a recipe for dictatorship. I mean – duh!

But there’s another reason why this Presidential system is seriously flawed. Under the Westminster system, if the Prime Minister is found to have engaged in criminal activities, such as serious campaign finance violations, conspiracy with foreign powers to influence their own election, obstruction of justice, directing foreign policy on the basis of self-enrichment, and other egregious antics, s/he would be charged and forced to stand down. The party in power would then vote on a new leader – who may or may not be the Deputy PM. This would of course be somewhat traumatic for the body politic, but certainly not fatal. Changing Prime Ministers between elections is quite common, and has happened recently in Britain and Australia. Not so in the USA, where the Vice President, a personal choice of the now discredited Prez, is necessarily the next in line. Think of Mike Pence as President – or think of Sarah Palin taking over from John McCain. Why should the electorate have to suffer being presided over by the bad choice of a bad (or good) President? This is a question Americans will be asking themselves quite shortly, I reckon.

So why is the system unlikely to change? I’ve mentioned American jingoism. Even those media outlets, such as MSNBC and CNN, that spend much of their time exposing Trump’s lies and poor decisions and general worthlessness, seem never to question the system that allowed him to gain a position so entirely unsuited to him. It just astonishes me that the idea that a person in his position might be immune from prosecution can be taken seriously by anyone with an adult mind. The fourth estate should be hammering this obvious point home on a daily, if not hourly basis. Trump should now be in custody. His ‘fixer’, Michael Cohen, is currently on bail for campaign finance felonies, among other things. He will serve three years in jail. Trump was the Mr Big in those campaign finance felonies, and should serve more time than Cohen, as a matter of basic logic. Why has he not been charged? There is absolutely no excuse. And he shouldn’t be allowed out on bail, due to his known habit of obstructing justice and witness tampering. How can anyone respect a justice system that hasn’t acted on this? The world is watching incredulously.

As I see it, the Presidential system is a kind of sop to American individualism. The USA is a hotbed of libertarians, who see ‘universal’ education and health-care systems as ‘socialism’, while the rest of the western world just calls it government. Many of their worst movies feature one machismo guy – male or female – sorting out the bad guys and setting the country to rights. That’s another reason why they won’t want to muzzle their Presidents – after all, if they had much of this concentrated power removed from them, why have a President at all? Why indeed. The Westminster system is more distributed in terms of power. The Prime Minister is ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, the captain of the team. S/he can always be replaced if injured or out of form or is no longer representing the team adequately, for whatever reason. The team, though, is the thing. Us, rather than me. But the USA is full of screaming mes. And now they have a screaming me as their President. It’s the ultimate self-fulfilment. I watch from afar with guilty fascination, not unmixed with schadenfreude – but with a particular interest in what will happen post-Trump. My bet is that there will be some changes, but nowhere near enough – they’re too wedded to romantic and adventure-laden fantasies of individualism. So the USA with its wild-west hangover of a Presidential system will always be worth watching, but never worth emulating.

Written by stewart henderson

January 3, 2019 at 10:28 am