Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review: Comparing Westminster by R. A. W. Rhodes, John Wanna, and Patrick Weller

Published initially in 2009 Comparing Westminster seeks to answer the question of what is the Westminster system. On this blog and in newspaper columns, panel shows and speeches there has been a great deal of discussion amongst the intelligentsia of this country at the nature of our system. You can look back at my book review for Democratizing the Constitution for an entire book dedicated to the topic of understanding our Westminster system and how to reform it.

Given the poorly defined nature of the Westminster system it is difficult for observers, scholars and politicians to nail down its detailed tenets. The authors cite a beautifully succinct description of this problem:

1. The prerogatives of the Crown are exercised on the advice of ministers (except in such cases as they are not).

2. The government resigns when it loses the confidence of the House of  Commons (except when it remains in office).

3. Ministers speak and vote together (except when they cannot agree to do so).

4. Ministers explain their policy and provide information to the House (except when they keep it to themselves).

5. Ministers offer  their individual resignations if serious errors are made in their departments (except when they retain their posts or are given a peerage).

6. Every act of a civil servant is, legally speaking, the act of a minister (except those that are, legally speaking, his own). (p. 58)

That encapsulates just some of the internal contradictions of the Westminster system. Rhodes, Wanna and Weller determine that the best way to determine what is Westminster was to study the five countries whose systems are rooted in the same tradition: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The author's approach is interesting in part because they include South Africa and New Zealand. in the most recent piece of political science I review the authors ignored South Africa, which considered its system to be entirely different, and had New Zealand with a caveat that its switch to proportional representation in 1996 meant that data after that point was irrelevant. I will admit to being sceptical at the inclusion of South Africa but the authors cite several key points in South African democratic tradition that has evolved from Westminster, so though it is often the outlier it is usually informative.

Within the book the authors tackle a number of the key aspects (and critiques) of the Westminster system including centralization of power, domination by the Prime Minister, responsible government, presidentialism, the independence of the bureaucracy, and the role of cabinet and ministers, to name a few. Reading the book I found it very interesting how they are able to contrast the differing contexts and circumstances against one another while preserving the nuance and pointing to commonalities.

One of the issues that I care a great deal about it the issue of centralization of power in the office of the prime minister. Unsurprisingly it is a common feature in all five countries. However the case studies that the authors point out are instructive. Yes, the prime ministers in the Westminster system can be extremely powerful, but this is also dependent upon the ability and temperament of the Prime Minister as well as broader political context. Consider, in Canada Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper exercised the exact same amount of political authority at a similar time, yet Martin seemed to struggle to maintain his government while Harper has only grown more dominant over his tenure. Similar parallels can be drawn in the U.K between the indomitable Margaret Thatcher and then struggles of Tony Blair. When the office of the prime minister is in the hands of a capable leader with strong party backing their ability to shape government is incredible.

The authors provide similar analysis as the preceding paragraph outlines for large array of governance issues familiar to anyone in a Westminster country and the common experience is interesting. Even the countries who have strayed the furthest from 'traditional' Westminster still deal with legacy issues and a political culture shaped by it. Proportional representation in some ways has done very little to alienate New Zealand from the system than the other four. Ultimately Westminster is vague, ill-defined and incredibly flexible. Its traditions and precedents can now often be bent to either side of an argument.

The authors challenge reformers in this country that the 'golden era' of Westminster never really existed, or when it did was fraught with other issues. On this nostalgia they say, "Nostalgia has the advantage of imprecision; the belief that the standard of politics was better some time in the past may provide solace to those who see only disappointment and distaste in the modern process... For of course there is no evidence there ever was such a 'golden age', except in the frustrated mind of the dreamer." (p. 226). I am one of those dreamers but I take their point. It's not about returning to a different time, but enhancing powers and reviving traditions that will improve the function of the House of Commons.

In the concluding chapter Rhodes, Wanna and Weller make a concluding statement that I have never heard applied to Westminster. Compared to other systems Westminster is often upheld for its ability to build stable majorities and provide strong, consistent leadership. Powerful, reform-minded Prime Ministers can wholly transform their countries in their term, but this strength is also its greatest weakness. The ability to make changes quickly and dramatically often means that legislation is flawed. Most of the legislation that goes through legislatures in these countries are amendments and revision of existing laws to correct past mistakes. The authors posit that in countries that take longer and are more consensual that there may be less need to revise because of the upfront investment of time and thought.

The Westminster system is an evolving system, the traditions, practices and precedents are rooted in the past, but are constantly evolving in parallel to the sister systems across the globe. There is no one Westminster system, but as the authors suggest, narrowing down our system to a concise definition is antithetical to the whole thing in the first place.

This book is a comfortable read and accessible to a reader interested in this topic. I recommend it for anyone seeking to understand the Westminster system and major governing issues in those countries at the present time.

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