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Sunday, May 02, 2004
The Westminster Constitutional system is a conglomerate of documents, conventions and assumptions. As such, it has constantly changed and adapted, from the days when Parliament was a gathering of Lords convened by the Monarch for the purpose of levying troops, through to the present system.
The United States Constitution is a codification of assumptions and conventions that prevailed at the time it was written; before the British constitutional system had reached maturity. Since 1766, the British system has matured significantly. Specifically, Walter Bagehot overturned some faulty assumptions, such as the rather clumsy and potentially dangerous wall between the Executive and the Legislature, which makes it well nigh impossible to rein in an Executive who has lost the confidence of the Legislature. In addition, there is no way to break supply deadlocks, which encourages them to happen with discomforting regularity. (This is why in some parts of the US, public servants have to wait for backpay and roads are closed because there is no money to perform necessary roadworks). The American Constitution is worse than a 230 year old document frozen in time. It has actually codified the misconceptions of the 18th Century. This is compounded by the fact that the American Constitution, being Republican, is founded on a negative concept: the abolition of the Monarchy.
On the other hand, the Australian Constitution is just over 100 years old - it was written after the most important developments in Constitutional Law had already taken place, and it incorporates those ideas. The Australian System is less rigid than the American, and has continued to evolve over time: for example, the Australia Act considerably altered Australia's status vis-a-vis Britain. Much of our Constitution is, in reality, convention, lending it a greater flexibility. (For example, the Ministerial system is not enshrined in the Constitution, but is inherited from its parent.) Our relationship to Britain is one of both independence and connection; a mature and civil approach.
Australia has one of the world's most flexible yet stable constitutions, and one of its most successful. We have had only one major Federal crisis (the supply crisis culminating in the 1975 Dismissal), which was resolved without undue fuss. On the other hand, the most recent American Presidency saw a major crisis which was unresolved.
America's partisan judges and governors, its systematically corrupt system of electoral borders (rotten boroughs went out of style here a long time ago!) and the obscenely venal system of electoral funding are an embarassment for America's democratic allies (most of which are monarchies). It would be great to be able to point to the great successes of a liberal-democratic capitalist system such as we have in our "Northern European" monarchies (Britain-Canada-Australia-NZ, Norway, Sweden, Denmark), but we are constantly embarassed by the glaring cracks in America's imperfect democracy.