Political leaders in Westminister Systems

Date

2004

Authors

McAllister, Ian

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Abstract

There is little doubt that political leaders have become more politically important over the past half century, although the extent which their electoral influence may have increased remains a matter of debate. This fundamental change in the role of political leaders has been especially pronounced in parliamentary systems based on the Westminster model. In parliamentary systems, the promotion of leader images during national election campaigns is now as prominentperhaps even more prominentthan party symbols, leading some to argue that the Westminster system is converging with its presidential counterpart (Mughan, 2000). In parallel with this change, governments and sometimes even oppositions are routinely labeled after the leader by the media and by the public, rather than after the party they lead (McAllister, 1996). The defining moment in this change is often traced to Margaret Thatchers accession to office in Britain as the first conviction politician of the postwar years. However, it is often forgotten that Pierre Trudeaus election as Canadian prime minister in 1968 led to the Trudeaumania phenomenon which is perhaps the earliest manifestation of a prime ministers popularity surpassing that of his or her party. Since the 1990s, it has become more commonplace for governments or parties to be named after their leader. In Germany, the popularity of Helmut Kohl and more recently Gerhard Schroder has at various times easily eclipsed the parties they lead, as has the popularity of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Tony Blair in Britain. The changing role of prime ministers has not only occurred in terms of their public profile within the electorate. In the context of their capacity to influence policy, postwar prime ministers in Westminster systems have accumulated considerably greater power and authority when compared to their prewar counterparts (King, 1994; Rhodes, 1995). In many Westminster systems, it is often argued that cabinet government based on collective responsibility has been undermined, in part by the increased complexity of modern decision-making, but also by a conscious effort to centralize prime ministerial authority. Moreover, in majoritarian systems such as that of Australia and Britain, the prime minister now exercises unprecedented power in shaping ministerial careers, a crucial tool in ensuring compliance and centralizing authority. The prima facie evidence suggests, then, that prime ministers and opposition leaders have replaced many of the roles historically played by political parties in ensuring the efficient operation of the parliamentary system. This chapter examines the evidence to support this observation in Australia, Britain and Canada, focusing especially on the presidentialization hypothesis. However, a major task of the chapter is also to outline some of the factors which have led to a greater focus on prime ministers, and in this, these are divided between exogenous factors, such as the changing role of television, and institutional changes, such as the increasing complexity of public policy. Australia, Britain and Canada are particularly appropriate case studies. Although all three operate political systems which have a common origin in the Westminster model, they vary considerably in how that model has evolved to cope with their differing circumstances. Both Australia and Canada adopted federal systems, although there the similarity ends. In Australia, the power of the majority party is tempered by the influence of the upper house, the Senate. Originally conceived of as the states housea house of review in which the states aims would balance those of the partiesin recent years the control of the Senate by the opposition parties has effectively meant that the government must either drop or radically alter its more controversial legislation if it wishes to see it implemented (Sharman, 1999). In neither Britain nor Canada is their such an institutional impediment to majority rule. In Britain the governing party can count on implementing its legislative program. The House of Lords represents no major impediment to the government putting its policies into law, and in the rare occasions when its lower house majority has been so small as to place its legislative program in jeopardy, an election has been called.2 In Canada the federal government is effectively independent of the provinces in the areas in which it has jurisdiction; when negotiation takes place, it is generally in the areas of provincial jurisdiction when the provinces are seeking federal financial support. In both Australia and Canada, then, prime ministerial authority must take account of federalism in realizing their policy goals, and in the former, this means the constraint placed on such authority by the upper house.

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leadership, institutional changes, public policy, Australia, Britain, prime ministers, Canada, leader images, Westminister Systems, television, political leaders

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