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Westminster System

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The Westminster System is a democratic system of government modelled after that of the United Kingdom and in use in a number of Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia, Singapore, Jamaica, Ireland, New Zealand, and India. It is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. Although Westminister Systems are parliamentary systems, there are parliamentary governments, such as Germany and Italy, whose legislative procedures differ considerably from the Westminister system.

Aspects of the Westminster system include:

  • an executive branch made up of members of the legislature;
  • the presence of opposition parties;
  • a bicameral or unicameral legislature, where each house usually is elected on a different basis and/or for different terms, or where the members of the upper house (=British House of Lords, Australian Senate) are somehow appointed - the upper house usually has less power than the lower house (=British House of Commons, Jamaican house of Representatives). See Senate, House of Commons;
  • a ceremonial head of state who is different from the head of government who may possess reserve powers which are not normally exercised.

Most of the procedures of a Westminster system are typically defined by convention, practice and precedent rather than codification through a written constitution. In fact, it is common for the constitutional documents of a Westminster system not to even mention the head of government.

In a Westminster system, the members of parliament are elected by popular vote. A government is then formed by a party or coalition of parties that can command the support of the majority of parliament (usually in fact the majority in the lower house). The leader of this group is then named head of government by the ceremonial head of state, usually called the President (in republics), King/Queen (in independent monarchies) or Governor-General (in states where the Head of State is the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Governor-General is her representative in the State; in this case the Governor-General who is usually appointed by the Queen, acts as the de facto head of state).

The head of government, usually called the Prime Minister must be able to control a majority of seats within the elected legislative chamber. 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 resign and new elections are called. The head of government can ask the head of state to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections and must do so periodically. 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 and does not possess any independent authority.

There are a number of consequences of the Westminister system. They tend to have extremely well-disciplined legislative parties in which it is highly unusual and generally suicidal for a legislator to vote against their party and in which no confidence votes are very rare. Also, Westminister systems tend to have strong cabinets in which cabinet members other than the prime minister are politicians with independent basis of support. Conversely, legislative committees in Westminister systems tend to be weak.

Another convention of the Westminster system at least used to be that ministers were responsible for the actions of their department (even though government departments can be huge bureauracies with powerful senior staff), so if the department was responsible for a major misjudgement, blame would fall on the minister regardless of whether they were involved or even aware of the situation. Such a convention of ministerial responsibility, if it were ever explicitly followed, is now ignored, with ministers now only forced to resign when they become such an embarrassment to their government that they are too much of a politicial liability to leave in their post.

Countries that follow the Westminster system, at least partly, include:

See also:

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