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Responsible government: the delicious taste of checks and balances

'Responsible government' is a tenet of the Westminster system of Parliament. In countries such as Canada and Australia, responsible government describes the conventions which govern the relationship of the Cabinet, the Parliament and the Vice Regal, instituting a series of checks and balances on the power of each.

How a parliamentary democracy works

Westminster democracies are governed by a Parliament comprised of elected representatives, also known as Members of Parliament. Generally, each Member of Parliament belongs to a political party. The party with the most members of Parliament (or the party that can form a coalition) in the Parliament's lower house comes together to form the government.

The Government assigns some of its Members of Parliament to oversee policy for departments in the public service. These people are known as Ministers, and the policy that they write is implemented by public service bureaucrats. For example, Dr Brendan Nelson, MP, is the Minister for Education, and works with the Department of Education. Some of the Departments are detailed and complicated, such as health, education, defence and justice (known in Australia as the Attorney-General's department); in these areas, a Minister focuses solely on this Department. Other Departments, such as arts, sports and small business, are usually doubled up; a Minister may hold two or more of these positions at once. Members of the ministry essentially run the country; by setting policy for the public service, they shape the state of the nation.

The Cabinet: the seat (or possibly kitchen cupboard) of power

Collectively, Ministers form the Cabinet, an executive body of government. When it was originally conceived, it was common that all Ministers would be part of the Cabinet, but in recent times the Cabinet has been reduced to a core group of key Ministers selected by the Prime Minister. In modern times, the Cabinet represents the inner circle of government. Ministers for Health, Defence and Foreign Affairs, the Attorney-General, the Treasurer, Immigration, Employment and Education can expect to form part of the Cabinet. These will be the most trusted, most loyal Members of Parliament to the Prime Minister.

Cabinet wields ultimate executive power. It meets to discuss key areas of policy. Although in Australia it is not described in the constitution (neither is the Prime Minister, for that matter), it operates within a series of constitutional conventions which evolved in the British parliamentary system.

So, what is responsible government?

Responsible government is a term for the systems of checks and balanced that govern the behaviour of the Cabinet, the Parliament and the Vice-Regal. These checks and balances are mostly established in constitutional conventions.

These conventions are a series of unwritten rules that are followed out of a sense of honour and a desire for stability. They evolved to fill in the gaps in the written rules of the constitution. Some, such as former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, have argued that the conventions must be codified to ensure that they are not routinely broken. Others have argued that they must be allowed to evolve when necessary.

Responsible government gives powers to the Cabinet

A series of conventions assigns power to the Cabinet. The most important power given to Cabinet is the ability to advise the Vice-Regal. In fact, the Vice-Regal normally acts on the advice of individual Ministers and the Cabinet as a whole, unless the matter refers to the reserve powers.

However, since Cabinet's position as the leadership of the Government puts it in such a powerful position, the key issue for responsible government is the way that it acts as a balance against the Cabinet's power.

Responsible government creates checks on Cabinet's power

The Cabinet cannot wield its power arbitrarily, and the conventions of responsible government give Parliament an opportunity to scritinise the actions of the executive.

Firstly, it is a convention that to become a member of the Cabinet, a Minister must be a member of parliament. Furthermore, Ministers must have a majority in the House of Representatives in order to hold office.

Parliament itself has several methods to keep a check on the actions of Cabinet and the Ministers. The Senate routinely holds committees in which it questions Ministers about their actions, and it may choose to form a committee to inquire into any issue. Although the Senate cannot compel Ministers to produce documents used in Cabinet (as established in Egan v Willis (1998) 195 CLR 424 and Egan v Chadwick (1999) 46 NSWLR 563), it has the power to suspend Ministers from the House for contempt.

The Parliament also has the power to remove the government itself, by moving a vote of no confidence in the House of Representatives. If the motion is carried, by convention, the Government steps down or the Vice Regal removes them.

The clearest Australian example of the Senate's powers to curb the Cabinet occurred in 1975, when the Senate refused to pass the budget bill. This led to the dismissal of the Prime Minister, one of the most famous and controversial events in Australia's constitutional history.

In practice, responsible government works in conjunction with the separation of powers to provide a balanced system of government where no power goes unchecked. However, given that most of the powers are granted by convention rather than codified in a constitution, they are only kept in place by the will of the major parties. Unable to be reached or amended by law, the tenet of responsible government - which holds Westminster democracies together - is curiously untouched by legislation.

On the other hand, the key issue for responsible government in the future will be its evolution. Unrestricted by legislation, it has the power to evolve to suit circumstances. This has resulted in somewhat disparate responsible government systems in different countries and states, where some conventions have been codified and others have evolved. It remains to be seen whether parliamentary democracies will choose the dangerously unrestricted conventional system or turn to an inflexible written system.

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