The Death of the Westminster Model?

by Henry Farrell on August 23, 2010 · 6 comments

in Uncategorized

Patrick Dunleavy (LSE):

For the first time in history, the Australian outcome means that every key ‘Westminster model’ country in the world now has a hung Parliament. These are the former British empire countries that according to decades of political science orthodoxy are supposed to produce strong, single party government. Following Duverger’s Law their allegedly ‘majoritarian’ electoral systems (first past the post and AV) will typically produce reinforced majorities for one of the top two parties. But now the table below shows that four of the five key countries have coalition governments in balanced parliaments where no party has a majority. The one exception is Canada, where the Parliament has been hung since 2004, across three general elections. But somehow Canadian politicians have still not got the knack of constructing a coalition government.

More here.


Nazgul35 August 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Duverger’s Law is a district level analysis. The author is incorrectly interpreting what Duverger suggests. Of course multiple party systems are possible in SMD majoritarian systems if you have regional differentiation (Canada, UK).

Henry Farrell August 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Actually, there is a _lot_ of disagreement (Cox and others notwithstanding) as to whether Duverger’s law is supposed to generate predictions at the district or party system level.

Kyle Dirck August 23, 2010 at 6:11 pm

It’s also important to remember that Australia is not a pure Westminster system: the federal Senate (elected by state-based PR) has actual power to block legislation, though it can only cause the downfall of the government indirectly.

Also, Australia’s political right is in a state of flux, with the Liberal Party’s traditional Coalition partner, the Nationals, sort of dying out/splitting into independents.

Kyle Dirck August 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Also, this fact…

Despite piling up 1.2 million out of 11 million votes, the Greens gained only one seat.

…suggests that the ever-electoral-reform-minded Aussies really need to think about an Additional Member system for the House. Not that that would minimize hung parliaments.

Ed August 23, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Its an interesting post, but each of the countries other than Britain have departed enough from the “Westminster Model” to make the post pretty meaningless.

New Zealand has used the additional member proportional representation system for over a decade. So of course, in a proportional representation system its unlikely one party will have a majority. He might as well have used Ireland as an example.

Australia uses proportional representation for the Senate, and even the House departs a bit from Westminster in not using first past the post. The two big parties have been doing deals with the smaller parties either to get preferences or to get legislation through the Senate for some time now. It appears what happened in this case is the slow unraveling of the Liberal’s permanent coalition partner (itself an unlikely concept with the Westminster model), the Nationals, meaning some National politicians who don’t like seeing their party getting slowly swallowed by the Liberals are sitting as independents. Though the Greens winning a House seat is an interesting development.

India is so large that it has developed a highly regionalized system, as Congress eventually lost its dominance decades after independence there were really no national parties left.

Canadian politics has also gotten fairly regionalized. The emergence of the Bloq Quebecois essentially took about forty of the three hundred ridings out of play in terms of building a majority for one of the national parties.

The Westminster model is supposed to be fairly centralized, but of course Australia, India, and Canada have strong federal systems.

For that matter, even in the UK coalition governments were the norm in the first half of the century.

I think the intelligent objection to PR is that it is hard (not impossible, just difficult) to square it with strong local representation. The dumb objection is that you want an artificial majority in the lower house, given that this is not guaranteed with single member plurality by any means, and the history of stable coalitions in most PR countries.

Elliot August 26, 2010 at 2:29 am

This is an attempt to inject some perspective into the debate:

1. The majors did still win 80% of the primary vote.
2. Four independents were elected at the 2004 election so we are only taking about the election of an additional 1 Green. In fact, there has, for some time, been a sprinkling of independents in the Australia lower house. Moreover, a Green has sat in the parliament previously following a 2002 by election with three or four other independents.
3. In the 1990 election the Australian Democrats received more than 11 percent of the first preference vote: it was a protest vote. Now they don’t have a parliamentary presence and barely an electoral one.

I guess my point is, let’s not get too hysterical about this result. The hung parliament scenario, in my view, is a result of an extremely close result between the two majors, not any great demise of the two-party system.

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