The Westminster system and the government

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1. The Westminster System The Westminster System (WS) is the British structure of representative government embodied by an executive council meeting within and being accountable to the legislature. Some other elements of the WS are a supreme executive authority, the Crown which doesn’t actively play a part in government, and a self-determining judiciary. Executive and legislative powers are not separate. It is called the WS because the British Parliament sits at Westminster which is part London. The constitutions of the Australian Commonwealth and the States adopted the WS which is also acknowledged as responsible government (Butt 2004, 457). 2. Responsible Government Responsible government is a specific way of governing through its elected representatives. Under this structure, the Parliament, not the government, is elected by Australian voters. Government Members are also Parliament Members. They become the government as they have a majority of members in the House of Representatives of the Australian Parliament. Occasionally a minority government might need the support of either a smaller party or independent Members. What is central to this structure is Responsible Cabinet government in Australia, and the democratic and liberal values which are entrenched within it. 2.1 Parliament and the Election of the Government The democratic element in the structure of the Australian government is the voters elect the Members of Parliament these Members then select the government. Under the WS the government is in the form of the Cabinet which is made up of the Prime Minister and Ministers who are drawn from the Government Members. 2.2 Parliament and the System of Responsible Government The Liberal element in the structure is that the government is held accountable to the Australian people. The Government is responsible to the Parliament not only for its actions but also for the government’s administrative arm (public service). The Government accountability is to the voters through periodic elections and is reinforced by procedures of the Parliament, and checks on the government executive branch and its bureaucracy. 2.3 Parliament and Ministerial Responsibility Individual ministerial responsibility is that Ministers are responsible to the Parliament not only for their actions but also for those of their departments. In the event of improprieties or maladministration’s a Minister should resign. A collective ministerial responsibility is when all Ministers must take responsibility for Cabinet decisions. A Minister that disagrees publicly with cabinet decisions should resign from the Ministry first. 2.4 The Australian model of the Westminster System The drafters of the Australian Constitution made two important modifications to the WS. They established the Senate an elected second chamber of Parliament where each State had equal representation. The other is based on parliament’s formal procedures which disguises the exercise of power of the Parliament, and its role in regards to the government’s exercise of executive power (Woodward 2010, 73-74). 3. Head of State A feature of responsible government in Australia involves the head of state. All executive powers are allocated in the Australian Constitution to the head of state. Yet in practice, these powers are implemented on the recommendation by the elected government in virtually all cases. The government bears responsibility for all the decisions and the head of state (Governor General) remains above most of the political disputes (Woodward 2010, 66-68). 4. Conventions of Westminster-style democracies Australia, unlike the United Kingdom, the constitution is a written document where some of these rules are contained. The stipulations of the Constitution contain the official rules of government. But there are areas where the Constitution is silent, political behavior is directed by established practices, usages, methods, maxims and habits most of them were received from colonial parliaments, and in turn they were received from WS (Reid 1977, 244). 4.1. Principles of Westminster-style democracies Conventions are an integral component of the Westminster-style democracies supplying the details and assisting political practice to observe the principles of responsible government. For instance, conventions cover: •procedures concerning the relationship involving the Prime Minister or Premier and the Cabinet, •the function and the responsibilities of Cabinet; •separation of powers; •relations between the Crown and the Parliament; •relationships between the Houses of Parliament; and •how budgets are appropriated (Heard 1991, 1). 4.2 Constitutional Conventions There is a variety of definitions on what establishes a constitutional convention. Mainly definitions refer back to the work of British scholar A.V. Dicey who examined the distinctions concerning the law and the numerous constitutional conventions of the Constitution (Heard 1991, p. 4). 4.2.1 Identifying the existence of a convention The questions that need to be asked: •what are the precedents; • do the players in these precedents consider they were obligated by these rules; and • is there a beneficial purpose for the rule (Jennings 1959, 159) 4.3 Australian Parliamentary Key Conventions The main conventions are: •governments recognise a loyal opposition; •ministers must answer on behalf of their departments and provide explanations if questioned; •ministers must not mislead Parliament – or if they do inadvertently, then they must correct the record immediately; and •ministers have a duty to attend Question Time, except if they have urgent business (Jaconelli 2005, 150). 5. Conclusion The WS has evolved over hundreds of years and will continue to evolve; these precedents and practices continue to play a significant role in Australia, and serve our democratic way of life well. Bibliography Butt, P 2004, Concise Australian Legal Dictionary, 3rd edn, LexisNexis Butterworths, Chatswood NSW. Heard, A. 1991, Canadian Constitutional Conventions: The Marriage of Law and Politics. Oxford University Press, Toronto. Jaconelli, J. 2005, Do Constitutional Conventions Bind? Cambridge Law Journal, 64(1), March, pp. 149-176, viewed 12 March 2014, via Google Scholar. Jennings, I. 1959, The Law and the Constitution, 5th edn, University of London Press, London. Reid, G.S. 1977, ‘Commentaries’. In Evans, G (eds) Labor and the Constitution: Essays and Commentaries on Constitutional Controversies of the Whitlam Years in Australian Government. Heinemann, Melbourne. Woodward, D., Parkin, A. and Summers, J. (eds), Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia, 9th Edn., Pearson, Frenchs Forest NSW.

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