The chaos and bullshit that are engulfing government in the United States reveal differences between our two constitutions and systems of government. By and large, we adhere to the Westminster model. We have jettisoned most of the idea of responsible government – ministers being liable for the actions of civil servants – and we have made deep inroads on the need for a politically neutral executive. But we are closer to Westminster than Washington. Some of the differences are as follows, not in any real order.
1. The head of our government, the P M, is answerable in and to our parliament when it is sitting. The ability of the leader to respond to questions without notice on a daily basis is one of the key factors that the party takes into account in choosing that person for P M. The candidate must have real parliamentary experience. This is not so with the President of the U S. It was hard to imagine someone like George W Bush getting the job here. It is impossible to imagine someone like Trump doing so.
2. Nor are other Cabinet members answerable to Congress. Some of the absurd appointments Trump has made simply could not happen here. Like the Barbie Doll daughter and her visible husband.
3. The opposition party has no recognised office of Leader of the Opposition. This leads to irresponsibility in opposition, and it facilitates a wrecking opposition. An opposition should not be heard unless it pledges to implement a different policy or platform. I am not sure how far this practice feeds the custom that the outgoing president lays low (while making a fortune). Who better to critique and oppose the incoming president?
4. The President speaks through others – in the White House – in a way that encourages irresponsibility and incoherence. Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway would be inconceivable here. Trump has slow or slippery front people whom he then contradicts on Twitter. The Marx Brothers White House show is not funny anymore.
5. There is a much greater infection of partisanship in the U S executive. Departments suffer wholesale reconstituting when the party in power in Congress changes. The Department of State has been mutilated. It has suffered political purges. Sally Yates was attacked for being a Democrat.
6. A lot of these issues derive from an ideological embrace of the separation of powers. We follow the English. We ask not whether a scheme or proposal conforms to theory, but whether it works. The U S division of powers leaves them like the Stuarts on war powers – the executive declares the wars, but only the legislature can fund them. We and the English want our ministry to be members of parliament and at least to that extent to be both elected to and answerable to the parliament.
7. The process of finding nominees for the parties and then electing the president allows for the election of someone who is not just not qualified, but who ought to be disqualified.
8. That process is hideously long and expensive. It is as notorious for its inefficiency as their health system.
9. The Supreme Court is and has been split along ideological fault lines that would be anathema here.
10. The Bill of Rights has a constitutional effect in the U S and is far too ideological for our tastes. It gives unelected judges far too much law making power, and it is prone to debase the currency of the independence of the judiciary.
11. Apart from their gun laws, the crassest example of the sad triumph of theory over sense in the U S is their failure to make voting compulsory. That to us makes as much sense as not insisting on a secret ballot, or making jury service optional, or giving a green light to going through a red light. This absurd obsession does not fulfil democracy, it mocks democracy. And, if it matters, some say that it sits on a sad throwback to racism.
12. The President is the head of state in the US. Our Prime Minister is not. Americans invest much more faith in their President than we place in our PM. We expect more from the system than Americans do, but we place far less faith in the people actually in office. At least Australian republicans have a model to avoid.
13. Finally, it is too hard to get rid of a dud president. None has ever been removed by a completed process of impeachment. Here, we just leave it to the party room. It has happened too often here recently, and it’s never pretty, but the alternative looks awful.
That’s not a good report card, and it is not just Americans who are paying the price.
A gentleman makes friends through being cultivated, but looks to friends for support in benevolence.
From the next Passing Bull, we shall cease our protest at ‘Western values’ and return to Poet of the Month.