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Craig's Grist

Parliament Works Better


October 16, 2009

Virtually every democracy outside the U.S. operates under a parliamentary system, and it merits transplanting to Michigan.

Previous columns have called for a unicameral legislature with two members elected in each district, each with a legislative vote equal to the share of the popular vote. In case readers view that as too timid, I propose that Michigan adopt a parliamentary system.

When then-Lieutenant Governor Jim Brickley chastised me for thinking small about America’s policy making machinery and its flaws, he said: “Our system’s antiquated. The fear of a throne drove the constitution’s framers to shackle the public will. Today, I fear the tyranny of paralysis.”

All states aped the federal model of separate powers being assigned to the two policy making branches, the executive and the legislative. Checks and balances have warded off despotism at the federal and state levels. Score one for the 18th century’s founding fathers.

As Michigan’s budgetary travails of 2007 and this year prove, separation of powers puts straitjackets on the type of change that crisis ought to impel. To divide power in these times means that stasis triumphs. Paralysis and chaos go hand in hand. Two legislative chambers that different parties control, and a governor with no experience in legislating, may make for good theater but hardly good government. In the last 60 years, voters have produced a coherent state government (in which one party controlled the governorship and both legislative chambers) for precisely eight.

Parliamentary systems join executive and legislative powers. One leader leads both and also his or her party. Ideology and political parties mean something. Change can be brisk to meet challenging times. The minority party stakes clear claims to how it would govern differently and has an opposition leader who is known to the public. At the next balloting, people have a clear choice.

No parliamentary system on earth arbitrarily denies longevity in office. It is folly to provide a government of the people with people who have little experience. Had Great Britain adopted Michigan’s draconian term limits, Sir Winston Churchill would have been put out to pasture 34 years before becoming prime minister and leading the free world to victory over Nazism.

America’s love affair with separate powers assumes strange things: a) a leader cannot be both a maker and implementer of policy; b) it is wicked to entrust the well-being of people to a coherent political party, as opposed to special interests piecemealing public policies; c) one party’s good showing at one election breeds irreversible despotism; d) cults of personality are healthier to democracy than intelligible reasoning and a coherent, guiding philosophy; and e) a bedsheet ballot of nondescript individuals defines the public will.

In stark contrast, consider a parliamentary system that produces: a) robust and seasoned thinkers who understand the making and execution of law; b) accountable leaders of parties, as opposed to unaccountable associations and lobbyists; c) elections whenever a leader loses the public’s and party’s faith and trust; d) ennobling philosophical disputes instead of du jour flaming; and e) unified but reversible law making.

America and Michigan, with divine or other providence, have been led by presidents, governors, and legislators who have tried their best. Fate has been quite charitable, given the perplexity and vices of our system. The American system has produced an FDR and Ronald Reagan, but surely Andrew Johnson was no William Gladstone and Rutherford B. Hayes no Benjamin Disraeli. It would be unfathomable for the British parliamentary system to have thrust leadership on either Johnson or Hayes.

It is inside baseball, but how politicians behave depends on the system that puts them in charge. I argue that the system, more so than its players, is at fault.

Next month: Appoint Judges


Craig Ruff is, among many things, a senior policy fellow and former president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.

October 17, 2009 · Filed under Craig's Grist Tags: , , , , , , ,

50 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Bryan Taylor // Oct 18, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    Another great column, but my own experience working in the British Parliament also showed some of the system’s flaws. For instance, power was incredibly centralized with only a few people making decisions and having access to information. The reality was reflected in the way resources were distributed. Even in the majority party, backbenchers had to share small offices with other MPs with access to just one assistant in a secretarial pool down the street. Lots of pomp and partisanship, but little power. God save the queen.

  • 2 Richard Cole // Oct 21, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Hurray Craig for challenging us in such a wonderful way. You are my choice to chair the constitutional convention.

  • 3 Paul Natinsky // Oct 23, 2009 at 4:52 am

    Another weakness of the parliamentary system is the ever-shifting, brittle coalitions that are necessary to create a “government.” Parliament often is not the home of “ennobling philosophical disputes.” Consider the infighting in the Israeli goverment as Exhibit A, and book-banning by the British when one of their spies decided to shine some light the British spook system.

    I would argue that it is the people involved rather than the system. John Engler served in the Legislature from age 22 until his election as governor and was well able to advance his policies. He had majorities in both chambers, but I would argue he would have been considerably more successful than Gov. Granholm in the current circumstance.

  • 4 Paul Natinsky // Oct 23, 2009 at 6:22 am

    I would argue that it is the people, not the system. I’m not sure that “ennobling philosophical disputes” characterize the ongoing battle between Israeli politicians’ most vile and bitter enemies, other Israeli politicians. Nor would I consider the British decision to ban a book about its spy agency (that hadalready been widely distributed) to be a particularly enlightended decision.

    The same parliamentary system, in the same era, produced that paragon of political prowess, Neville Chamberlain; who then gave Europe away to an even worse parliamentary product who attempted to take over the world and kill half its people.

    Finally, I believe John Engler, a legislator from almost the time he reached drinking age, would have outperformed Gov. Granholm, who had none, even if he had not enjoyed a majority in both legislative chambers.

  • 5 Nick // Oct 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    A couple of thoughts on this subject:

    1) I have supported a parliamentary system for decades, but I wouldn’t support one if we adopted Mr. Ruff’s ill-flawed proportional representation system that he outlined in a previous column. This would result in ridiculous coalition governments that plague continental countries. Stick to the Anglo-Saxon first-past-the-post system with a return to the pre-60s era of one member of the House for each county, with an additional 27 members divided based upon population.

    2) What would happen to the governor’s office? Would we adopt a system of a prime minister that was head of government, but a governor that was head of state with little to no powers?

    3) Would this be constitutional? I imagine there would be challenges in federal court.

  • 6 Ed Rivet // Oct 30, 2009 at 7:39 am

    Parliamentary system? Really? America’s Democratic Republic is unquestionably the most unique experiment in democratic self governance in human history. Is it flawed? Sure. But as others have pointed out, so is the parliamentary system.

    As junkies of the political process, where we can mess around with concepts like term limits, various forms of representation, unicameral versus bicameral legislatures, etc., why would we want to abandon that playground and give up experimenting with the process of forming “a more perfect union”?

    Let’s stay in the game of tweaking, adjusting, experimenting, and all the while holding on to those self-evident truths. Because I assure you, no matter what system you choose, those truths will not change. We, as a nation/state with a collective character (flawed as it may be), are the ones vulnerable to change, for good or for ill.

  • 7 Nick // Nov 8, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Ed – One can be a republic and have a parliamentary system of government. I prefer the Westminster system of parliamentary government, though the Swedish model where MPs resign their seat upon becoming a minister makes a little more sense because there is a better separation of the executive and legislature.

  • 8 Dick Olson // Dec 9, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Actually in the last election Michigan voters did opt for a coherent government. As we all know they elected a Democratic governor and a Democratic state house. However, by about the same margin Michiganders voted for Democrats for the state senate. Only gerrymandering of the highest order led to Republican control of the state senate. Some think the worse part of gerrrymandering leads to politicians carving out favorable districts for themselves. I think the worst consequence is a party that perpertuates its control after it has lost popular support.

  • 9 Jericho // Sep 21, 2010 at 2:43 am

    Actually I prefer the French version of a parliamentary system. Theirs include a combination of president and parliament systems in one. I did a research report on forms of government and found both the French and Swedish systems to be the best. However I find that the Swiss way of Government is the best of the best. EVERY citizen participates in Switzerland’s government. I am ashamed at the American numbers who even bother to vote. I also agree with a one house parliament or congress. One representative per area regardless of size. The upper house of most governments in a stronghold for the rich and lazy.

    Check out Queensland Australia’s One House Parliament. Some of the things they are doing other parliaments have copied because they are a lot more efficient at it.

  • 10 Orion // Nov 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

    Hi Jericho,

    Actually, the French system is NOT a parliamentary system. It’s technically a Presidential System because the French President is essentially the one who calls the shots and acts as both Head of State and Head of Government.

    Most political scientists refer to the French system as a “semi-presidential” system because the legislature has a slightly bigger share of power than it does in the American full “Presidential” system. But a semi-presidential system is still a Presidential System because the President still has more powers than parliament.

    A true Parliamentary System has a parliament having more power than the Head of State.

    You can check out the slide I made which makes a comparison of the different systems found in the link here: http://antipinoy.com/spps

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