The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘comparative legislatures’

It’s All In The Timing

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 24, 2010 @ 11:47

Yes. It is.

To me, the beauty of the American political system is in its enforced renewal. Every two years, the populist House has to be re-mandated. It is this very nature that makes it populist. Meanwhile, their ultimate leader and national figurehead, the President, gets a little longer, but is not allowed to stick around for more than eight years, lest he (not yet a she) start to get ideas above his station, and become a little too attached to the trappings of office.

There aren’t many other Western political systems that have such rigorous time and term limits on everything. The rest of us, especially Westminster inspired systems, have a lot more flexibility regarding the calling of elections. And that’s where the problem begins.

Take Australia. In January, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked in an extremely powerful position. The opposition had just replaced its leader, in a fractious contest that split the party down the middle. His personal approval ratings were sky high. The opposition controlled Senate had just blocked a key plank of his legislation – environmental regulation – for the second time. This opened the door for Rudd to engage in some constitutional jiggery-pokery: a “double dissolution” election, which, most probably, would have resulted in a sweeping Labour victory in both chambers of the Parliament.

Instead, he decides to tough it out. And then sees everything go wrong, getting chucked out and replaced by Julia Gillard.

Julia Gillard doesn’t want to repeat Rudd’s mistake. While the polls see her arrival as positive, and the Labor Party improves its standing, she decides to seize upon the honeymoon and go straight to that election. The net result: Labor on the brink, courtesy of a terrible, back-biting campaign, and an opposition that had had eight months to prepare for this very moment.

Then there’s Gordon Brown: clinging on by his fingernails till the very last moment. If only he’d gone straight away, like so many commentators (including me) thought he should. His first job, after accepting the invitation of the Queen to be the Prime Minister, should have been to say, “And now I’d like an election to mandate this change”. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be one of the shortest ever PMs. And yet all the omens were good for them. Tories still not ready. Old election boundaries. Honeymoon period. The rest is history.

Recent evidence seems to be that politicians are not very good at choosing the timing of elections. They either worry that they’re about to sign their own death warrant, or are hopelessly optimistic about what’s lurking around the corner.

Since we should only trust politicians as much as is necessary, we should do them all a favour and back the idea of fixed election dates. Let’s take the stress off them, and in return, remove a major element of political fiddling from the system.

Though I still think five years is too long…

Advertisements

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Are US Politicians Lower Grade?

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 23, 2010 @ 09:59

Gohmert in better times...

On fairly regular occasions, I watch The Daily Show. Now, it can hardly be described as an unbiased source of “news”, but satire always has a stinging level of truth behind it. More than mere truthiness.

Whenever I watch, there is invariably a segment where host Jon Stewart plays clips of US politicians, either delivering sermons in the House or the Senate, or holding forth on Fox or some other news network. The clips are usually of someone talking utter bullshit, saying something truly outrageous and being allowed to get away with it.

One recent example was the case of Representative Louie Gohmert, a Texas Republican who appears to have no brain whatsoever. He talked up the ludicrous notion that terrorists were coming to America to give birth, so that their offspring could claim US citizenship under the 14th Amendment, only to return decades later as a legitimate citizen and blow themselves up.

Where this batshit crazy man got this idea from no one really knows. And when challenged to give any proof to his assertion, he just got mad instead.

Allowing lunatics like him to be elected will always remain the great flaw of democracy. But what concerns me a little about America is that he is by far not the only example. Day after day, week after week, on The Daily Show, more and more politicians are put in the limelight displaying absolutely zero intelligence whatsoever.

While Britain too has its fair share of politicians who arguably lack the brainpower to stand up and make a coherent, logical speech, backed by evidence as they see it, it seems to me that the US has a lot more of them, despite actually having fewer politicians at the national level. From Michele Bachman to Jim Bunning. And plenty more.

It seems like a harsh question to ask, but there is definitely something different about American democracy versus British democracy. I’m not saying that our voters look for intelligence in their politicians either, but for whatever reason, there is a cultural difference. US politicians have historically won elections by being more “one of us” – despite not being “one of us” in the least. Whereas in Britain, historically it has not always been like that, though we’re heading in that direction.

For those who disagree, let’s hear it. I raise the question simply because I’m genuinely interested…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Westminster Can Learn From Holyrood

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 5, 2009 @ 09:14

The "Mother of All Parliaments" Also Comes With The Mother of All Price Tags

Westminster

Most people now appreciate that, in comparative perspective, Westminster really is not the mother of all Parliaments after all. We may have thought that in the era before mass communication simply because we were ignorant to all the alternatives.

These days, however, there is no excuse. Especially as we have a beacon of best practice right on our doorstep. The London-centric media had until now tried to pretend it didn’t exist. Then, with the al-Megrahi excitement, they suddenly realised that there was a lot of good stuff going on there…

The real political anoraks will, of course, say that that has been the case for a very long time. Sure, it was always going to take time to bed in, but after 10 years of restored devolved government, it is a very opportune moment to consider some of the things Scotland is getting right that Westminster should be keen to copy.

Expenses

The MSP expense system is far superior to Westminster. Take a look for yourself. They have been doing it like this for years, where expenses are only reimbursed on the actual costs incurred, supported by receipts for everything. Simple and transparent. It’s when others make something look so easy that you realise MPs whinging that it was “the system” that caused them to behave so badly is a bare-faced lie, conveniently created so tey can dodge their real culpability in allowing it to continue unreformed for so long.

Recess dates

The Scottish Parliament consistently sits for longer than the Westminster Parliament every year. Its recesses are always shorter; and though they still have a two month summer recess (which is too long), it is still better than the 2.5 month one that MPs get.

Business

In the Scottish Parliament, control of business is in the hands of a separate committee, which the Scottish government does not control, and all agendas and minutes are put into the public domain. Even better, the final agenda for business that the committee produces has to be approved by a motion in Parliament. In Westminster, none of this happens. It’s all done cloak-and-dagger in “the usual channels” – which are, as Tony Benn said, “the most polluted waterways in Europe”.

Petitions

The Scottish Parliament has a nice little device whereby petitions are submitted to a Committee which then takes a short investigation on the subject and gets the relevant government department to reply. All done publicly. Westminster does a similar thing, only there is no committee, and the government’s responses are invariably extremely late or inadequate.

Conduct of business in Parliamentary proceedings

Holyrood: Scottish Parliament

Holyrood: Scottish Parliament

The Scottish Parliament is far less arcane, allowing members to refer to each other by name, and without all the usual ostentations that go with Westminster proceedings. MSPs are even allowed to clap, something far more natural than the raucous din of “hear hear” that we hear in Westminster. The Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament also has much more powers to keep contributions brief, but it seems Westminster is at least learning on this score, as it’s one of the things new Speaker John Bercow has concentrated on.

Voting

The nonsense of physically going through a corridor to vote is one of Westminster’s most ridiculous traditions. A single vote takes between 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, Holyrood dispensed with four votes in the space on five minutes the other day on the al-Megrahi affair. This actually means Holyrood takes more votes on issues, since many things are not voted on in Westminster merely to reduce the number of times they have to go through their rigmarole. While some may say the Westminster traditions should be preserved, I am not one of them.

Accessibility

Being a building designed for the modern era, Holyrood is far more publicly accessible as it has been designed to be a public building… unlike Westminster which was, primarily, a royal Palace which has been retrofitted to try to accommodate democracy. Hence why it is such a rabbit warren. Holyrood is far better equipped to deal with the public getting involved, with a better and (I think) larger public gallery. Westminster is constantly undergoing refurbishment to try to make the place more hospitable to visitors; the costs of which are astronomical and always rising. Something to do with being in a royal Palace, I think…

Different political culture

My final point stems from the fact that Holyrood has always been elected by a form of proportional representation, meaning governments either have to be coalitions or minority administrations. This has created a completely different ethos where the parties must work together on their objectives. There seems to be a lot less bad faith. For instance, in the Westminster climate, one would have thought that if the Tories had backed a Labour minority administration then the third party (in this case the Liberal Democrats) would get so uppity about the whole thing that they would refuse to engage on princple.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Tories backed the SNP’s budget, allowing it to pass… but the other parties haven’t thrown their toys out the pram in disgust. Instead, Labour intend to work with the SNP on alcohol policy in this parliamentary session, and until recently the Lib Dems had been trying to find a compromise on local income tax.

At Westminster, majority rule is the order of the day. Government defeats are extremely rare and always seen as a political earthquake, even though they shouldn’t be. The SNP administration is used to such defeats, but they are symbolic and only cause trouble on a PR level. But the fact that they are in a minority and could be toppled if they piss enough people off at any moment forces them to play nicely. Not like Labour in Westminster. And not like the Tories will be when they come to power.

Conclusion

Holyrood isn’t perfect – but it sure as hell has looked across the border for an example of how not to run a Parliament. It’s learned from that, and adapted much of its system to learn from their mistakes. These are the benefits of being able to start again from scratch. And where there are weaknesses, many of them are caused by having insufficient powers to legislate or because they are beyond their remit.

Westminster, on the other hand, is a monster that various MPs have tried to tame and got nowhere, simply because it doesn’t suit the government of the day to be more open and have less control of the agenda. There are too many vested interests, and too many people hiding behind the defence of “tradition” to preserve an institution that is still stuck in the 19th century.

The solution? My answer is too radical and will never happen. A constitutional convention to make us start again from first principles. And why does Parliament even need to be in London anyway?

A liberal can but dream…

Posted in Musings | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »