In praise of the parliamentary system

The American founders so distrusted the British monarchy and powerful government that they created a system that doesn’t actually work

The presidency of Donald Trump is a great advertisement for the parliamentary system.

The American founders were so distrustful of the British monarchy and powerful government that they created a system that doesn’t work. The president can veto legislation and Congress can override that. The courts can overturn laws from either branch. The states might drag their heels when implementing.

At best, it’s a great consensus. But most of the time, nobody’s responsible for anything. Everybody blames everybody else for flawed legislation or no legislation at all.

It’s almost impossible to get rid of a sitting president. Congress or cabinet must have the gumption to overturn the democratic votes of tens of millions of citizens.

In the parliamentary system, if the leader and party doesn’t have the confidence of the legislature, they’re out.

Canada’s system has power vested in the executive or cabinet and responsibility vested in ministers. Our prime minister wields much more power than a U.S. president. Our prime minister doesn’t have to whip up support in Parliament because parties normally vote along party lines. Members can be forced to do so under threat of being relegated to backbench oblivion or having to sit as an independent.

This may sound like a trade-off and it is – more power in a more tenuous position.

Is it a fair and democratic trade? It often depends on the issue and the politician.

Our parliamentary procedures and traditions may be inexplicable for Americans, but for those of us in Westminster democracies, there are critical constitutional traditions. Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield sheds light on how we obtained this trade-off in his book Politics of Accountability in the Modern State.

Flinders takes us back almost 200 years – before some of these traditions existed. Up to about the Great Reform Act of 1832 Parliament vested “administrative powers in appointed boards.” The Poor Law Commission members could not “explain their actions.” This marked the growth of the Public Accounts Committee, comptroller and auditor general, and supply debates.

There was not unanimity on what to do. The Whigs viewed developments in part through their lens of limits on constitutional monarchy. Peelites, named for Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, were a faction of the Conservative Party that had slightly different views. The fine points of the Whig and Peelite debate might be summed up in a discussion of executive power and ministerial accountability to Parliament. They’re a wee bit contradictory.

But “ministerial responsibility forms the cornerstone of the British constitution,” according to Flinders.

We have been eroding this cornerstone in the last 50 or so years. Each extra-parliamentary officer or procedure lets ministers off the hook. You’ve heard them blame civil servants, refer matters to the auditor general, have meetings with the ethics commissioner and so on.

These unelected officials serve good purposes. But not if they dilute the responsibility that ministers have to stand up and be evaluated by Parliament – something a U.S. president never has to do. Nor do members of the U.S. cabinet after they’ve been confirmed.

We have a 200-year constitutional tradition of government accountability in public administration. Power is vested in the executive and responsibility for reporting is vested in ministers, who answer to Parliament.

If journalists want more information, they can ask. If citizens do, they can attend parliamentary proceedings, meet with members in constituency offices or write letters. If opposition politicians do, they can be more forceful in the relevant committees and in question period.

All may wish to avail themselves of modern social science research methods, but there’s only a weak case for elevating academics or others, with a shorter professional history, to an ad hoc overseer of our grand constitutional and parliamentary traditions. Strengthen what’s there might be the admonition, not weaken it.

When lobby groups, academics and public intellectuals have moved on to debates that interest them more, ministers, our executive and elected Parliament will still be there – in strength, one hopes.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. His forthcoming book is Cyber City Safe. 

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