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Justin Santiago, BAppSc (Hons), MBA, LLB (Hons) comes from a journalism, market research, intellectual property and strategic communications consulting background. Now based in Melbourne he spends his time advising businesses on how to communicate to their customers as well as writing on various subjects of interest in this blog.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Prime Minister

Too much power vests in the office of the Prime Minister - Justin Santiago

The office of the Prime Minister is a creation of convention. The leader of the party with the majority in the House of Commons is invited by the Crown to head the government and this person is known as the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then forms the government which includes the Cabinet and consists of the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Chancellor and other senior ministers. These positions as well as the Ministerial positions for the other departments are appointed by the Prime Minister on the advice of the Crown and will form the core of the Executive which also includes members of the Civil Service.

The office of the Prime Minister is founded on the Westminster model which is characterized by a a ceremonial figurehead who is the theoretical, nominal or de jure source of executive power within the system. In practice, such a figure doesn't normally exercise executive powers, even though executive authority may be exercised in his/her name. Executive authority within a Westminster System is essentially exercised by a Prime Minister, a Cabinet and other junior ministers.

Though the head of state, be it governor-general, monarch, or president, will have nominal powers to "check" those of the prime minister, in practice these individuals are usually regarded as little more than figureheads who are not expected to actively intervene in day-to-day politics, often because they lack a popular democratic mandate to do so. Without an active check on the executive power of the prime minister, it is argued, the PM can in effect rule largely unquestioned. He or she appoints members of the cabinet and determines when "consensus" is reached in cabinet, cabinet members do not have much independence to actively disagree with government policy, even for productive reasons leading one to conclude that the government has moved from a parliamentary government to a cabinet government to a prime ministerial government.

The Westminster prime minister additionally is able to appoint a large variety of individuals, such as judges, members of the civil service, the armed forces and the bishops as long been a matter of political contention as the influence of the Prime Minister appears to be overreaching. These public appointments and conferring of honours could lead to quangocracy or political patronage and can potentially blur the lines of separation of powers.

In order to ensure the government always has the confidence of the majority of the house, the political culture of Westminster nations often makes it highly unusual for a legislator to vote against their party. Critics argue this in turn undermines the freedom and importance of MPs in day-to-day legislating, making cabinet the only organ of government where individual legislators can aspire to influence the decisions of the government. Which in turn breeds an obsession with "getting into" cabinet. Likewise, strong party discipline obviously ensures that no-confidence votes are very rare, though this also eliminates the usefulness of such votes as an active way of holding an incumbent government accountable.

Legislative committees in Westminster systems which are the standing committees tend to be weak, as most senior policy will be made at the cabinet level, regardless of what individual MPs may or may not decide in committee. The Prime Minister may not allow room for debates and consultations from these committees and may fill these committees with his or her strongest supporters.

Even with such mechanisms in place, the Prime Minister may decide matters outside the formal Cabinet and standing committees either in ad hoc committees or in informal groups. These ad hoc committees of leading ministers are formed by the Prime Minister from time to time with a view of achieving a stronger strategic control in formulating major policies. These committees are formed for the purpose of expediting governemtn business on the assumption that certain decisions are taken more effectively by a small group of people rather than the full cabinet. Their existence and membership are not formally constituted. The informal groups simply consists of individuals whose opinion the Prime Minister values and who may not even be members of the cabinet.

The majority of bills considered will be introduced by the government of the day and once a bill passes through a second reading will be sent to the standing committees which may be doing nothing more than participating in a ritual dance punctuated by catcalls. The minister in charge of the Bill will has have the task of successfully steering the bill through the committee and for the most part deliberations are sometimes a formality.
Legislation that is passed in such a system with a strong reliance on the Salisbury Convention may result in improperly scrutinized bills and which will undoubtedly bear the mark of the Prime Minister.

Several bills which have passed through Parliament may simply be an extension of the Prime Minister’s agenda such as the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (ATCSA) of 2001 which grants the Home Secretary the power to deport or detain indefinitely any non-citizen he “reasonably believes” to be an international terrorist and The Terrorism Act 2006 creates a number of new offences and include acts preparatory to terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications which effectively suppress political freedom and the freedom of speech which follows closely on the heels of the Terrorism Act 2000 which enhanced police powers and allowed wider stop and search powers and the power to detail suspects after arrest for up to 28 days without trial.

There is very little in terms of control over an overzealous Prime Minister. Firstly the Queen has the power to intervene in extreme cases. Secondly a motion of no confidence can be passed which can force the Prime Minister out of office. Thirdly members of the party to which the PM belongs may oust him or her as their leader which would also force the Prime Minister out of office. And lastly the Prime Minister may be removed by the electoral vote i.e. if he fails to retain his parliamentary seat.

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