Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Westminster Parliamentary System Is Showing Its Age

Hung parliaments have become the norm in the UK, Canada, and now in Australia, which should give cause for concern. In short, it now appears that as a system of governance, the Westminster system can no longer furnish stable, single party, majority governments, which raises the question: why are we hanging onto this political vestige of the British Empire?

Essentially, by using a single member plurality electoral method for electing representatives in the lower house, Westminster is an adversarial system that gives strong institutional incentives to vote for either of two parties that can offer a government option because only the votes that establish a plurality within an electoral district are effective. All other votes, often more than 50 percent of the total votes cast, are simply discarded. Consequently, electors who may prefer a smaller party with little are no chance of forming a government are encouraged to cast their vote for the "lesser of the two evils."

Regardless of Westminster's systemic design, voters are rejecting the notion of being channeled towards two voting options, and it is this emerging pattern that renders the system obsolete. Simply put, Westminster is not designed for coalition governments. Yet, in each of the last elections in UK, Canada, and Australia, voters have collectively refused to give a single party a majority of seats, which is significant since the single member plurality voting method has a built in bias that has as an effect to manufacture majority governments for parties that have received less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

What we are witnessing is a splintering of the electorate. Over the years, sustained immigration combined with the decline of the influence of the mass media as a result of the rise of the Internet has multiplied the poles of attraction. No single party can capture the allegiance of enough voters to form a majority government.

In each of the three countries, a single party can no longer effectively advance a legislative agenda, which results in varying levels of stalemate. In the UK, a ruling coalition formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; however, the price to pay was a referendum on the voting system that could make coalition government a permanent fixture. In Australia, both the Labour Party and the Liberal-National Party Coalition will attempt to form a majority with the single Green and the four other Independents in the lower House, while the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate. Finally, in Canada, the Conservatives cling to a single party minority government, having had to prorogue Parliament in order to avoid a non-confidence vote that would have toppled the government in favor of a coalition between the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois.

Given that single party majorities are rapidly giving way to coalition governments and the current economic situation demands a coherent, stable government to enable states to adapt to the changing conditions in the global economic order, nations governed by the Westminster system are in dire need of revamping their political systems. Unfortunately, the political parties that are used to forming majority governments are slow to accept the fact that their political reality has changed, and, in the meantime, the electorate is held hostage by those who steadfastly refuse to move ahead with systemic change.


  1. Hi, I'm in Australia and am currently watching the rather painful and often nauseating machinations of two parties scrambling to form a stable government.

    I'd be interested to know from your perspective, what are the other/best options in place of the Westminster System?

  2. There are two elements of the Westminster system that are dysfunctional: the bicameral parliament and the majoritarian electoral system. In my opinion, the upper house in the UK and in Canada add little value to the democratic process. That may not be the case in Australia where the Senate is elected by a proportional method. I would prefer a single legislative assembly that uses the single transferable vote to elect its representatives. It is less proportional than list systems but it has the advantage of lessening the control that political parties have on the legislative process. This may or may not be a problem where you live.


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