Thursday, July 22, 2010

Breaking Westminster

Earlier in the year, the Cook Islands provided a startling example of how to break the Westminster system. In the wake of a party dispute which had eradicated his majority and facing an imminent vote of no confidence, Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai found a way to avoid losing office: he adjourned Parliament until further notice. No Parliament, no vote. No vote, no loss of office and perks.

Unfortunately, it seems that other people were watching. And as a result, the same dirty trick has just been pulled in Papua New Guinea. The governing party there has just splintered after a court case overturned the anti-party-hopping law which artificially held it together, with the result that long-serving Prime Minister Michael Somare has lost his majority. Rather than facing his fate, he instead got the Speaker to adjourn Parliament until November, giving him another four months in office (and time to bribe or threaten his way to a majority again).

In both cases (and that of Canada a few years ago) the move is legal. But its also grossly unconstitutional, violating the central tenet of the Westminster system: that the government must have the confidence of Parliament at all times. And the result is that both the Cooks and PNG are now effectively governed by dictatorships without any democratic mandate.

This is an appalling abuse of the Parliamentary process, and it exposes a fatal flaw in the heart of the Westminster system, born of the royal prerogative. The only way to save democracy is to eliminate that prerogative. In New Zealand, we've largely done that - our Parliament sets its own sitting timetable, rather than sitting on the whim of the Prime Minister, while the prerogative power to dissolve (and by extension, prorogue and adjourn) Parliament now requires the confidence of the House. Clearly, our Pacific neighbours need similar reforms. Otherwise, they will remain at the mercy of unscrupulous, power-hungry politicians with a contempt for democracy.