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Westminster system’s means of selecting a leader works well

(Photograph by Luke McGregor/Bloomberg)

The Westminster system of government often comes in for its fair share of criticism in recent times — here and elsewhere. True, it is not perfect, and I have in my time been an advocate for reform and modification to refine and build on that which encourages collaboration and discourages unnecessary discord and division. Nonetheless, the Westminster model does present an interesting and instructive contrast to what is going on, er, down, in Washington these days.

Here, I have in mind the selection of leader — in our case, premier.

The Bermuda Constitution Order 1968 provides that our premier shall be appointed by the governor, who, acting in their discretion, appoints that Member of the House of Assembly who appears to the governor “best able to command the confidence of a majority of the Members of that House”.

No formal poll of Members has to be taken. This particular provision, like the Constitution Order, was predicated on party politics. This was the era that ushered in responsible government, and the days of independents were given the heave-ho.

What that has meant is that the leader of the party who wins a majority of seats in the House of Assembly in a General Election becomes premier.

Arguably, it matters not how that leader is or was chosen by that party — that is a matter for the parties and their members — but only so long as the elected members of that party support the leader, and the governor is convinced that is the case; and on that point a cautious governor might well ask for proof in the form of members’ signatures, particularly in a case where there has been a contentious change in leadership in between general elections.

The often-voiced criticism is that whoever is leader, and becomes premier, has not been elected by the voters and that there is therefore no direct relationship between leader and people.

But quite how that would manifest itself into an effective, working relationship is a matter with which other systems of government have to grapple. Washington, again, comes to mind.

The beauty of the Westminster system is that the leader is, as that well-known expression goes, simply the first among equals. While it is true that in many parliamentary jurisdictions, ours included, we have seen the office trend towards a more presidential style of operation, the constitutional fact is that this is essentially illusory.

Why? Because a leader’s tenure under the 1968 Order ultimately and finally depends on the votes of a majority of their elected members. A term in office can be brought to an end not just by a vote, in or out of the House, but by the mere threat of a vote. It therefore also serves a deterrent to excesses in office.

This is not just theory.

We have seen the option employed effectively here in Bermuda and it has led to changes in premiers – and certainly, and arguably, without the demonstrative drama that we see in other places. A bit of an understatement, I know, when considering, say, the process of impeachment.

Incidentally, the very same considerations apply to the person chosen as Leader of the Opposition, again appointed by the governor and chosen on the basis that they enjoy the confidence of a majority of members on the opposition benches; although obviously without the same implication and impact to the body politic as premier.

As I wrote at the outset, the Westminster model may not be perfect, but in some respects it works pretty well. The selection and deselection of leader may be one of those instances.

A final thought. As we reflect on events in Washington, one proverb keeps coming to mind:

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

For those who don’t know, it is taken from the Old Testament (Hosea 8:7).

So it’s true: there really is nothing new under the sun.

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Published January 15, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated January 15, 2021 at 9:26 am)

Westminster system’s means of selecting a leader works well

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