The Westminster system is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom system, as used in the Palace of Westminster, the location of the UK parliament. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once also used, in most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth nations, beginning with the Canadian provinces in the mid- 19th century. It is also used in Australia, India, the Republic of Ireland, Jamaica, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malta. There are other parliamentary systems, for example those of Germany and Italy, whose procedures differ considerably from the Westminster system.
Important features of the Westminster system include:
- an executive branch usually made up of members of the legislature with the senior members of the executive in a Cabinet;
- the presence of opposition parties;
- an elected legislature, or a system in which one of two houses is elected and the other appointed;
- a ceremonial head of state, who is different from the head of government, and who may possess reserve powers that are not normally exercised.
- the ability of the lower house of parliament to, by default, dismiss a government by "withholding (or blocking) Supply" (rejecting a budget), passing a no-confidence motion, or defeating a confidence motion. The Westminster system enables a government to be defeated, or forced into a general election, independently of a new government being chosen.
- the ability for a parliament to be dissolved and elections called at any time.
Most of the procedures of the Westminster system have 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 that 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, such as the Canadian constitution and the Australian constitution, may not even mention the existence of the Cabinet and the title of the head of the government ( Prime Minister), because these offices' existence and role evolved outside the primary constitutional text.
In a Westminster system, the members of parliament are elected by popular vote. The head of government is usually chosen by being invited to form a government (that is, an administration), by the head of state or the representative of the head of state (that is, the governor-general), not by parliamentary vote (see Kissing Hands.) 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.
Because of the mandate and the potentially significant constitutional powers of the Irish president, some authorities believe the Irish constitution is as similar to semi-presidential systems, as it is to Westminster. Similarly, under the constitutions of some Commonwealth countries, a president or Governor-General may possess clearly significant reserve powers. One example is the Australian constitutional crisis of 1975, in which the Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister, who held a majority in the Australian House of Representatives. Because of constitutional differences, the formal powers of presidents and Governors-General vary greatly from one country to another. However, as Governors-General are not directly elected, they lack the popular mandate held, for example, by an Irish president. Because of this, Governors-General rarely risk the public disapproval which would result from them making unilateral and/or controversial uses of their powers.
The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister, must be able either (a) to control a majority of seats within the lower house, (b) to ensure the existence of no absolute majority against them. If the parliament passes a resolution 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 public elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny their mandate.
In addition to a majority in the Australian House of Representatives, an Australian prime minister must also secure a Senate which is willing to pass budgets. This is a practical matter to allow the government to govern, and the support of the Senate is in no way required to form government; government is formed in the lower house alone. Many political scientists have held that the Australian system of government was consciously devised as a blend or hybrid of the Westminster and the United States systems of government, especially since the Australian Senate is a very powerful upper house. This notion is expressed in the nickname "Washminster system". For example, the Australian Senate maintains similar powers to those held by the US Senate or the British House of Lords, prior to 1911, to block supply to a party with a majority in the House of Representatives.
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.
In exceptional circumstances the head of state may either refuse a dissolution request, as in the King-Byng Affair, or dismiss the government, as in the Australian crisis of 1975. Either action is likely to bend or break existing conventions. The Lascelles Principles were an attempt to create a convention to cover similar situations, but have not been tested in practice.
In his book "The English Constitution" which was published in 1876, Walter Bagehot emphasised the divide of the constitution into two components: the Dignified (that part which is symbolic) and the Efficient (the way things actually work and get done) and called the Efficient " Cabinet Government". Although there have been many works since emphasising different aspects of the "Efficient", no one has seriously questioned Bagehot's premise that the divide exists in the Westminster system.
Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for government policy. All Cabinet decisions are made by consensus, a vote is never taken in a Cabinet meeting. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet, or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government publicly regardless of any private reservations. When a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, a lot of time is taken up in the conversations of politicians and in the news media, speculating on who will, or will not, be moved in and out of the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, because the appointment of ministers to the Cabinet and threat of dismissal from the Cabinet, is 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. However, because many government departments are huge bureaucracies with powerful senior staff, the ministers in charge of departments are now held accountable only for the implementation of policy decisions and any misconduct of themselves and those civil servants over whom they have direct control. 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.
The Westminster system tends to have extremely well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their party, and in which no-confidence votes are very rare. Also, Westminster systems tend to have strong cabinets in which cabinet members are politicians with independent bases of support. 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 Westminster system has a very distinct appearance when functioning, with many British customs incorporated into day-to-day government function. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long, rectangular room, with two rows of seats and desks on either side. The chairs are positioned so that the two rows are facing each other. The intended purpose of this arrangement is to create a visual representation of the conflict-filled nature of parliamentary government. Traditionally, the opposition parties will sit in one row of seats, and the government party will sit in the other. Of course, sometimes a majority government is so large that it must use the "opposition" seats as well. In the lower house at Westminster (the House of Commons) there are lines on the floor in front of the government and opposition benches that members may cross only when exiting the chamber. The distance between the lines is the length of two swords.
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, as well.
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.
Some countries under the Westminster system
- Republic of Ireland
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- Trinidad and Tobago
- The United Kingdom