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Is Westminster dead in Westminster (and why should we care)?

23 February 2005




Westminster’s characteristics include a unitary state, but Australia is federal. They include parliamentary sovereignty, but Britain has ceded sovereignty to the European Union. So is there anything left of the Westminster model that is both distinct from other parliamentary democracies and relevant to the present-day practices of Australia and Britain?

The answer is the family of ideas about executive government:

  1. Parliamentary sovereignty with its unity of the executive and the legislature
  2. The concentration of political power in a collective and responsible cabinet
  3. The accountability of ministers to parliament
  4. A constitutional bureaucracy with a non-partisan and expert civil service.

But in Britain all these ideas have been and continue to be challenged. Key constitutional changes include devolved government to Scotland and Wales, reform of the House of Lords, the Human Rights Act, and freedom of information. Key changes in political practice include the rise of the British presidency.

These changes represent a shift from government by a unitary state to governance by and through networks. I examine these changes under five headings: hollowing out the state, the shift from prime minister to core executive, the accountability gap, learning skills we haven’t learnt before, and the sour laws of unintended consequences. I argue Australia confronts similar problem of governance; for example it too must work through packages of governments and organizations. Examining how Westminster has changed may highlight these problems. It does nothing to help solve them. It belongs to a simpler era. Now we must learn manage domestic and international networks over which we have at best hands-off controls.

Suggested citation

Rhodes, R. A. W. (2005). Is Westminster dead in Westminster (and why should we care)? ANZSOG-ANU Public Lecture series, Canberra, 23 February.

Authors: Rod Rhodes
Published Date: 23 February 2005