I spoke yesterday to a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seminar which brought together more than sixty parliamentarians and officials from a large number of Commonwealth countries.
My task was to open with a paper on the Westminster system of government. This is actually quite a challenging exercise. The Westminster Parliament and the Westminster system of government are not synonymous. The system derives from Westminster but not everything that happens at Westminster is characteristic of the Westminster system. There are many things that exist at Westminster that are not replicated in other legislatures that are considered Westminster-style parliaments.
The Westminster system of government is one of the four principal systems that now exist (the presidential, continental parliamentary, Westminster parliamentary, and premier-presidential). What distinguishes the Westminster parliamentary system from the others is that it is a majoritarian system, utilising an electoral system that facilitates (but by no means guarantees) a two-party system and single-party government, with the executive dominating and leading in the legislature. The emphasis has tended to be on the chamber rather than committee.
Westminster has also bequeathed some other notable features. They include the concept of an official Opposition (headed by a Leader of the Opposition, a term first coined in Canada), two sides sitting facing one another (a consequence of Parliament having sat in St Stephen’s chapel), rather than in a semi-circular chamber, and a presiding officer who is a neutral figure – a servant of the House rather than the leader or servant of a political party.
I also spoke about the significance of Parliament as the grand arena for debate as well as some of the benefits and limitations of the system, which I may cover in a later post. I also drew attention to the significant variations between legislatures in Westminster systems. They can be rather marked, to the extent that it is not clear whether certain ‘Westminster’ systems really still deserve to be so described. For example, to what extent can New Zealand, now with its Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system of election, be described as a Westminster system? The boundaries can sometimes be blurred.