Westminster system is a parliamentary system of government
developed in the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of
Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament. The system is a
series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was
once used, in the national legislatures and subnational legislatures
of most former
British Empire colonies upon gaining responsible
government, beginning with the first of the Canadian provinces
in 1848 and the six Australian colonies between 1855 and
1890. However, some former colonies have since adopted either
the presidential system (
Nigeria for example) or a hybrid system (like
South Africa) as their form of government.
3 Role of the head of state
4 Cabinet government
5 Bicameral and unicameral parliaments
6 Washminster system of Australia
9 Current countries
10 Former countries
11 See also
14 External links
Westminster system of government may include some of the following
A sovereign or head of state who functions as the nominal or legal and
constitutional holder of executive power, and holds numerous reserve
powers, but whose daily duties mainly consist of performing ceremonial
functions. Examples include Queen Elizabeth II, the Governors-General
in Commonwealth realms, or the presidents of many countries, and state
or provincial governors in federal systems. Exceptions to this are
Ireland and Israel, whose presidents are de jure and de facto
ceremonial, and the latter possesses no reserve powers whatsoever.
A head of government (or head of the executive), known as the Prime
Minister (PM), Premier,
Chief minister or First Minister. While the
head of state appoints the head of government, constitutional
convention suggests that a majority of elected Members of Parliament
must support the person appointed. If more than half of elected
parliamentarians belong to the same political party, then the
parliamentary leader of that party typically is appointed. An
exception to this was Israel, in which direct prime-ministerial
elections were made in 1996, 1999 and 2001.
An executive branch led by the head of government usually made up of
members of the legislature with the senior members of the executive in
a cabinet adhering to the principle of cabinet collective
responsibility; such members execute executive authority on behalf of
the nominal or theoretical executive authority.
An independent, non-partisan civil service which advises on, and
implements, decisions of those ministers. Civil servants hold
permanent appointments and can expect merit-based selection processes
and continuity of employment when governments change.
A parliamentary opposition (in a multi-party system) with an official
Leader of the Opposition.
A legislature, often bicameral, with at least one elected house –
although unicameral systems also exist; legislative members are
usually elected by district in first-past-the-post elections (as
opposed to country-wide proportional representation). Exceptions to
this include New Zealand, which changed in 1993 to use mixed-member
proportional representation; Israel, which has always used country
wide proportional representation; and Australia, which uses
preferential voting in the House of Representatives elections and
Single transferable vote
Single transferable vote in the Senate.
A lower house of parliament with an ability to dismiss a government by
"withholding (or blocking) Supply" (rejecting a budget), passing a
motion of no confidence, or defeating a confidence motion. The
Westminster system enables a government to be defeated or forced into
a general election independently.
A parliament which can be dissolved and snap elections called at any
Parliamentary privilege, which allows the legislature to discuss any
issue it deems relevant, without fear of consequences stemming from
defamatory statements or records thereof
Minutes of meetings, often known as Hansard, including an ability for
the legislature to strike discussion from these minutes
The ability of courts to address silence or ambiguity in the
parliament's statutory law through the development of common law.
Another parallel system of legal principles also exists known as
equity. Exceptions to this include India, Quebec in Canada, and
Scotland in the UK amongst others which mix common law with other
Most of the procedures of the
Westminster system originated with the
conventions, practices, and precedents of the Parliament of the United
Kingdom, which form a part of what is known as the
Constitution of the
United Kingdom. Unlike the uncodified British constitution, most
countries that use the
Westminster system have codified the system, at
least in part, in a written constitution.
However, uncodified conventions, practices, and precedents continue to
play a significant role in most countries, as many constitutions do
not specify important elements of procedure: for example, some older
constitutions using the
Westminster system do not mention the
existence of the cabinet or the prime minister, because these offices
were taken for granted by the authors of these constitutions.
Sometimes these conventions, reserve powers, and other influences
collide in times of crisis and in such times the weaknesses of the
unwritten aspects of the Westminster system, as well as the strengths
of the Westminster system's flexibility, are put to the test. As an
illustrative example, in the Australian constitutional crises of 1975
Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Prime
Gough Whitlam on his own reserve-power authority and replaced
him with opposition leader Malcolm Fraser.
The pattern of executive functions within a Westminster System is
quite complex. In essence, the head of state, usually a monarch or
president, is a ceremonial figurehead who is the theoretical, nominal
or de jure source of executive power within the system. In practice,
such a figure does not actively exercise executive powers, even though
executive authority may be exercised in their name.
The head of government, usually called the prime minister or premier,
will ideally have the support of a majority in the responsible house,
and must in any case be able to ensure the existence of no absolute
majority against the government. If the parliament passes a resolution
of no confidence, or refuses to pass an important bill such as the
budget, then the government must either resign so that a different
government can be appointed or seek a parliamentary dissolution so
that new general elections may be held in order to re-confirm or deny
the government's mandate.
Executive authority within a Westminster System is essentially
exercised by the Cabinet, along with more junior ministers, although
the head of government usually has the dominant role within the
ministry. In the United Kingdom, the sovereign theoretically holds
executive authority, even though the
Prime Minister of the United
Kingdom and the Cabinet effectively implement executive powers. In a
parliamentary republic like India, the President is the de jure
executive, even though executive powers are essentially instituted by
Prime Minister of
India and the Council of Ministers. In Israel,
however, executive power is vested de jure and de facto in the
cabinet, and the President of
Israel is de jure and de facto a
As an example, the
Prime Minister and Cabinet (as the de facto
executive body in the system) generally must seek the permission of
the head of state when carrying out executive functions. If, for
instance the British
Prime Minister wished to dissolve parliament in
order for a general election to take place, the
Prime Minister is
constitutionally bound to request permission from the sovereign in
order to attain such a wish. This power (along with others such as
appointing ministers in the government, appointing diplomats,
declaring war, and signing treaties, for example) is known as the
Royal Prerogative, which in modern times is exercised by the sovereign
solely on the advice of the Prime Minister. Since the British
sovereign is a constitutional monarch, he or she abides by the advice
of his or her ministers, except when executing reserve powers in times
This custom also occurs in other Westminster Systems in the world, in
consequence from the influence of British colonial rule. In
Commonwealth realms such as Canada,
Australia and New Zealand, the
Prime Minister is obligated to seek permission from the
Governor-General when implementing executive decisions, in a manner
similar to the British practice. An analogous scenario also exists in
Commonwealth republics, such as
India or Trinidad and Tobago, where
there is a President, though not in
Israel or Japan, where the
respective prime ministers have the full legal power to implement
executive decisions, and presidential (in Israel) or imperial (in
Japan) approval is not required.
The head of state will often hold meetings with the head of government
and cabinet, as a means of keeping abreast of governmental policy and
as a means of advising, consulting and warning ministers in their
actions. Such a practice takes place in the
United Kingdom and India.
In the UK, the sovereign holds confidential weekly meetings with the
Prime Minister to discuss governmental policy and to offer her
opinions and advice on issues of the day. In India, the Prime Minister
is constitutionally bound to hold regular sessions with the President,
in a similar manner to the aforementioned British practice. In
essence, the head of state, as the theoretical executive authority,
"reigns but does not rule". This phrase means that the head of state's
role in government is generally ceremonial and as a result does not
directly institute executive powers. The reserve powers of the head of
state are sufficient to ensure compliance with some of their wishes.
However, the extent of such powers varies from one country to another
and is often a matter of controversy.
Such an executive arrangement first emerged in the United Kingdom.
Historically, the British sovereign held and directly exercised all
George I of Great Britain
George I of Great Britain (reigned 1714 to 1727)
was the first British monarch to delegate some executive powers to a
Prime Minister and a cabinet of the ministers,
largely because he was also the monarch of
Hanover in Germany and did
not speak English fluently. Over time, arrangement continued to
exercise executive authority on the sovereign's behalf. Such a concept
was reinforced in The English
Constitution (1876) by Walter Bagehot,
who emphasised the "dignified" and "efficient" aspects of government.
In this sense Bagehot was stating that the sovereign should be a focal
point for the nation, while the PM and cabinet actually undertook
Role of the head of state
The head of state or his or her representative (such as a
governor-general) formally appoints as the head of government whomever
commands the confidence of the elected chamber of the legislature and
invites him or her to form a government. In the UK, this is known as
kissing hands. Although the dissolution of the legislature and the
call for new elections is formally performed by the head of state, the
head of state, by convention, acts according to the wishes of the head
A president, monarch, or governor-general might possess clearly
significant reserve powers. Examples of the use of such powers include
Australian constitutional crisis of 1975
Australian constitutional crisis of 1975 and the Canadian
King–Byng affair in 1926. The
Lascelles Principles were an attempt
to create a convention to cover similar situations, but have not been
tested in practice. Because of differences in their written
constitutions, the formal powers of monarchs, governors-general, and
presidents vary greatly from one country to another. However, as
sovereigns and governors-general are not elected, and some presidents
may not be directly elected by the people, they are often shielded
from any public disapproval stemming from unilateral or controversial
use of their powers.
Main article: Cabinet collective responsibility
In the book The English Constitution,
Walter Bagehot emphasised the
divide of the constitution into two components, the Dignified (that
part which is symbolic) and the Efficient (the way things actually
work and get done), and called the Efficient "Cabinet Government".
Although there have been many works since emphasising different
aspects of the "Efficient", no one has seriously questioned Bagehot's
premise that the divide exists in the Westminster system, though
Japan operates without the "Dignified" part of government.
Members of the Cabinet are collectively seen as responsible for
government policy, a policy termed cabinet collective responsibility.
All Cabinet decisions are made by consensus, a vote is rarely taken in
a Cabinet meeting. All ministers, whether senior and in the Cabinet,
or junior ministers, must support the policy of the government
publicly regardless of any private reservations. When a Cabinet
reshuffle is imminent, a lot of time is taken up in the conversations
of politicians and in the news media, speculating on who will, or will
not, be moved in and out of the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, because
the appointment of ministers to the Cabinet, and threat of dismissal
from the Cabinet, is the single most powerful constitutional power
Prime Minister has in the political control of the Government
in the Westminster system.
Official Opposition and other major political parties not in the
Government, will mirror the governmental organisation with their own
Shadow Cabinet made up of Shadow Ministers.
Bicameral and unicameral parliaments
Canadian Parliament at night
The Sansad Bhavan (संसद भवन) (Parliament House) building
in New Delhi, India
Knesset Building, Jerusalem
National Diet, Tokyo, Japan
Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, Dhaka, Bangladesh
The Parliament building in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Dáil Éireann building Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland
In a Westminster system, some members of parliament are elected by
popular vote, while others are appointed. Nearly all Westminster-based
parliaments have a lower house with powers based on those of the House
of Commons (under various names), comprising local, elected
representatives of the people (with the only exception being elected
entirely by Nationwide PR). Most also have a smaller upper house,
which is made up of members chosen by various methods:
Termless appointees, either lifetime or retiring, from successive
Prime Ministers (such as the Canadian Senate)
Appointees of the premier and the opposition leader (such as the
Direct election (such as the Australian Senate)
Election by electoral colleges or sub-national legislatures (such as
the Indian Rajya Sabha)
Hereditary nobility (such as the British
House of Lords
House of Lords until the
House of Lords
House of Lords Act 1999)
Any Combination of the above (such as the Malaysian National Assembly)
In the UK, the lower house is the de facto legislative body, while the
upper house practices restraint in exercising its constitutional
powers and serves as a consultative body. In other Westminster
countries, however, the upper house can sometimes exercise
Some Westminster-derived parliaments are unicameral for two reasons:
The Parliament of New Zealand, Parliament of Queensland, and the
parliaments of Canadian provinces have abolished their upper
The Parliament of Malta, the
Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea Parliament, the
Legislative Council of Hong Kong, and the Israeli Parliament never had
Hong Kong, a former British crown colony and currently a special
administrative region of the People's Republic of China, has a
unicameral Legislative Council. While the Legislative Councils in
British Australasian and North American colonies were unelected upper
houses and some of them had since abolished themselves, the
Legislative Council of Hong Kong has remained the sole chamber and had
in 1995 evolved into a fully elected house, yet only part of the seats
are returned by universal suffrage.
Responsible government was never
granted during British colonial rule, and the
Governor remained the
head of government until the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, when the
role was replaced by the Chief Executive. Secretaries had remained to
be chosen by the Chief Executive not from the Legislative Council, and
their appointments need not be approved by the Legislative Council.
Although essentially more presidential than parliamentary, the
Legislative Council had inherited many elements of the Westminster
system, including parliamentary powers, privileges and immunity, and
the right to conduct inquiries, amongst others. Minutes are known as
Hansards, and the theme colour of the meeting chamber is red as in
other upper houses.
Government secretaries and other officials are
seated on the right hand side of the President in the chamber. The
Chief Executive may dissolve the
Legislative Council under certain
conditions, and is obliged to resign, e.g., when a re-elected
Legislative Council passes again a bill that he or she had refused to
Washminster system of Australia
The Australian Senate
Australia is, in many respects, a unique hybrid with influences from
the United States
Constitution as well as from the traditions and
conventions of the Westminster system.
Australia is exceptional
because the government faces a fully elected upper house, the Senate,
which must be willing to pass all its legislation. Although government
is formed in the lower house, the House of Representatives, the
support of the Senate is necessary in order to govern. The Senate
maintains the ability similar to that held by the British House of
Lords, prior to the enactment of the Parliament Act 1911, to block
supply against the government of the day. A government that is unable
to obtain supply can be dismissed by the Governor-General: however,
this is generally considered a last resort and is a highly
controversial decision to take, given the conflict between the
traditional concept of confidence as derived from the lower house and
the ability of the Senate to block supply. Many political scientists
have held that the Australian system of government was consciously
devised as a blend or hybrid of the Westminster and the United States
systems of government, especially since the
Australian Senate is a
powerful upper house like the U.S. Senate; this notion is expressed in
the nickname "the Washminster mutation". The ability of upper
houses to block supply also features in the parliaments of most
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Cabinet members do not have much independence to actively disagree
with government policy, even for productive reasons. A cabinet member
may be forced to resign simply for opposing one aspect of a
government's agenda, even though they agreed with the majority of
other proposals. Westminster cabinets also have a tendency to be very
large. As the cabinet is the chief organ of power and influence in the
government, members of parliament may actively lobby for a position in
cabinet once their party is elected to power. The Prime Minister, who
is also party leader, will have an active interest in promoting as
many of these members from their own party as possible.
Westminster governments usually do not have a very strong tradition of
separation of powers, in practice (apart from the separation between
the executive/legislature and the judiciary). 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 expected not to actively intervene in day-to-day politics.
Prime ministers under any
Westminster system have ample freedom to
appoint a large variety of individuals, such as judges, cabinet
ministers, and other senior bureaucrats.
Nevertheless, prime ministers can usually do only as much as public
opinion and the balance of party membership of parliament will let
them do. In practice, government in multi-party consociational
systems, such as Belgium or the Netherlands, is always made up of
coalitions, and prime ministers must keep the coalition partners happy
in order to retain their support on votes of confidence. By contrast,
in countries with a strong two-party system, such as the United
Kingdom and Australia, coalitions rarely occur except when a third
party wins an unusually large number of parliamentary seats, or in
times of national crisis, when all parties may be represented in the
government in order to promote national unity.
The threat posed by non-confidence votes is often used to justify
extremely well-disciplined legislative parties in Westminster systems.
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 Members of Parliament (MPs) in day-to-day legislating,
making the cabinet the only organ of government where individual
legislators can aspire to influence the decisions of the government.
Most senior policy will be made at the cabinet level, regardless of
what individual MPs may or may not decide in committee, thus reducing
the strength of committees. Their greatest power is often the ability
to force a government to reveal certain pieces of information.
Westminster system has a very distinct appearance when
functioning, with many British customs incorporated into day-to-day
government function. A Westminster-style parliament is usually a long,
rectangular room, with two rows of seats and desks on either side. The
chairs are positioned so that the two rows are facing each other. This
arrangement is said to have derived from an early Parliament which was
held in a church choir. Traditionally, the opposition parties will sit
in one row of seats, and the government party will sit in the other.
Of course, sometimes a majority government is so large that it must
use the "opposition" seats as well. In the lower house at Westminster
(the House of Commons) there are lines on the floor in front of the
government and opposition benches that members may cross only when
exiting the chamber. It is often rumoured that the distance between
the lines is that of the length of two swords although no documentary
evidence exists to support this and, in fact, weapons have never been
allowed in the
Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster at any time.
At one end of the room sits a large chair, for the Speaker of the
House. The speaker usually wears a black robe, and in many countries,
a wig. Robed parliamentary clerks often sit at narrow tables between
the two rows of seats, as well.
Other ceremonies sometimes associated with the Westminster system
include an annual
Speech from the Throne
Speech from the Throne (or equivalent) in which the
Head of State
Head of State gives a special address (written by the government) to
parliament about what kind of policies to expect in the coming year,
State Opening of Parliament
State Opening of Parliament ceremonies that often involve
the presentation of a large ceremonial mace.
Countries that use variations on the theme of the Westminster system,
as of 2017, include the following:
System of Govt.
Antigua and Barbuda
House of Representatives
House of Representatives
House of Assembly
Senate of Bermuda
House of Assembly
House of Assembly
House of Assembly
Parliament of Canada:
House of Commons
House of Assembly
House of Representatives
Disintermediated Westminster system: Powers which would have been
exercised by the President of
Israel are divided between the Prime
Minister, the Cabinet, and the speaker of the legislature.
House of Councillors
House of Representatives
Disintermediated Westminster system: many non-reserve powers which
would have been exercised by the Emperor of
Japan on the advice of the
Cabinet in an unmodified system are exercised directly by the Prime
Minister, and Imperial reserve powers do not exist.
House of Representatives
The Yang-di-Pertuan Agong shares characteristics of heads of state in
both monarchies and republics.
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
House of Assembly
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
House of Assembly
Parliament of the Solomon Islands
Trinidad and Tobago
House of Representatives
House of Lords
House of Commons
Westminster system was adopted by a number of countries which
subsequently evolved or reformed their system of government departing
from the original model. In some cases, certain aspects of the
Westminster system were retained or codified in their constitutions.
South Africa and Botswana, unlike
Commonwealth realms or
parliamentary republics such as India, have a combined head of state
and head of government but the President remains responsible to the
lower house of parliament; it elects the President at the beginning of
a new Parliament, or when there is a vacancy in the office, or when
the sitting President is defeated on a vote of confidence. If the
Parliament cannot elect a new President within a short period of time
(a week to a month) the lower house is dissolved and new elections are
The Union of
South Africa between 1910 and 1961, and the Republic of
South Africa between 1961 and 1984. The 1983 constitution abolished
Westminster system in South Africa.
Newfoundland gave up self-government in 1934 and reverted to direct
rule from London. Use of the
Westminster system resumed in 1949 when
Newfoundland became a province of Canada.
Rhodesia between 1965 and 1979, and
Zimbabwe between 1980 and 1987.
The 1987 constitution abolished the Westminster system.
Nigeria following the end of
British colonial rule
British colonial rule in 1960, which
resulted in the appointment of a
Governor-General and then a
President, Nnamdi Azikiwe. The system ended with the military coup of
Ceylon between 1948 and 1972, and
Sri Lanka from 1972 until 1978 when
the constitution was remodelled into an Executive presidential system.
Burma following independence in 1948 until the 1962 military coup
Ghana between 1957 and 1960.
Tanganyika between 1961 and 1962.
Sierra Leone between 1961 and 1971.
Uganda between 1962 and 1963.
Kenya between 1963 and 1964.
Malawi between 1964 and 1966.
The Gambia between 1965 and 1970.
Guyana between 1966 and 1980.
Fiji between 1970 and 1987.
Japan between 1890 and 1947, under the Meiji
Constitution the Diet of
Japan was a bicameral legislature modelled after both the German
Reichstag and the Westminster system. Influence from the
Westminster system remained in Japan's Postwar
Bill of Rights 1689
English Civil War
History of Parliamentarism
Parliament in the Making
Parliament of England
Petition of Right
Parliament of Canada
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