The historian Laura Kalman is said to have read law journal articles when insomnia struck; the final result of those sleepless nights was her penetrating analysis in The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism. I’m no Laura Kalman. When I have trouble falling asleep – which happens fairly frequently when one contemplates today’s academic job market – I often pass the time by reading Australian news sites. (Given the significant time difference, as I lay in bed, it’s the middle of the day there, and there’s plenty to chew on.)
While we have recently completed an election, Australians are gearing up for their own (shorter, cheaper) federal election in 2013.
Even a cursory examination of the way Australia governs puts our own political system in sharper relief. This comparison allows us to appreciate that what seems natural in U.S. politics need not be so; after all, Australia does it differently.
(Of course, there are similarities between the two systems: the Australian model has been called the “Washminster” hybrid between Washington and Westminster. And there are also several differences that I want to put aside, including: that Australia is a constitutional monarchy; that voting in Australia is mandatory; and that Australia does not have a Bill of Rights.)
The biggest difference between the two systems is the separation of powers.
In the U.S., we elect a president and, separately, members of Congress. Because the executive and legislative chambers are separate, it is possible – and frequent – to see a Democratic president and a Republican Congress (or vice versa). We are all too familiar with the political gridlock of that situation. In the Australian system, however, voters elect a parliament, and the head of the majority party (of the House of Representatives) becomes the prime minister.
The Australian system’s blurring of the line between the executive and legislative has some positive features. First, by avoiding a situation in which the independent executive could veto legislation passed by a majority in congress, it allows for the majority party (or a majority formed through a coalition of multiple parties) the power to govern more freely. On the flip side, there is less of a threat of an “imperial presidency” when the executive is a member of the legislature. Ironically, Australia is actually a truer heir to the anti-executive spirit of the American Revolution.
The second benefit of the Australian system is that, since the road to becoming prime minister forces one to ascend to the head of the ruling party, the requirements for that position are greater and more time-consuming. It’s disconcerting that at this year’s party conventions, there was already talk of anointing novices Marco Rubio and Julian Castro as possible presidential candidates in the near future. President Obama’s rise in such a short span of time is a case in point, as was Sarah Palin’s less successful but no less game-changing candidacy. Our system favors dynamic and dynastic candidates, but disfavors those who have spent a lifetime gaining the respect of their peers in government (like Joe Biden and John McCain).
Like any system, Australia’s government has its drawbacks. First, because there is less separation between the executive and legislative branches, the prime minister’s cabinet is composed of ministers of parliament.
The U.S. president’s cabinet has the advantage because the president can select virtually any experts in the country as advisors. Also, those cabinet members are not simultaneously expected to serve their constituents. (Of course, this could also be a criticism of the lack of accountability the U.S. cabinet faces from voters.)
Second, because the prime minister is selected – not directly elected – as leader of the ruling party, it is possible that between election cycles, there could be a “leadership spill” and a new prime minister (whom the people did not vote for or anticipate) would be appointed.
No system’s perfect, but for all the talk of Washington’s “winner-take-all politics,” it seems like winning just is not enough to govern anymore.
Although I’m not sure about the feasibility of mimicking the Australian Washminster system, hopefully by comparing our system with theirs, we can realize that we need not accept the status quo as natural.
At the least, perhaps we’ll follow their lead and elect a female head of government soon.
Jason Schulman is a graduate student in the History Department.