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The value of ease

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a USSC event in Sydney, in which former Prime Minister John Howard spoke about the US-Australian relationship.  I was genuinely surprised by Mr Howard’s graciousness, particularly toward past and present Labor party members, and his humility.  I hadn’t expected to be so impressed by him.

Content-wise, though, there was a lot to disagree with him about, not the least of which were his comments on the US Political system.  He strongly advocated the Westminster Cabinet (and incorrectly said the US doesn’t have a cabinet. Which it, of course, does. It’s just not part of the legislative branch.)

Howard’s arguments seemed to keep coming back to the ease with which legislation can go through and, I think, be controlled by the leader of the government.  He said the big problem with the US system was that it was difficult for the President to make things happen.

That is the absolute and very beauty of the US System.

The accountability, the checks and balances and the separation of powers is what makes the US system so strong and effective. It’s also what makes it slow.  But it was designed to be slow. It was designed not to concentrate too much power in one place. Judicial review is absolutely central- something Howard also argued against- and it is good that it should be.

Effective democratic government requires balancing the ease with which laws can be enacted with the dangers of concentrating too much power in the hands of too few.  While the US may err on the slow side, Australia is far further toward the side in which small numbers of individuals have too much power and too little accountability.

Australians seem to work on the notion that because we haven’t had any really major problems (Whitlam aside), our inherently flawed system is ok. But it’s not.  It’s too insular, it is too restrictive, it encourages division, discouraged bipartisanship, and concentrates entirely too much power in the hands of too few.  Our leaders are still only elected by their local electorate, yet are expected to be accountable to the whole country. They act in secret. There are selected by their party faithful, and protect their own interests.

It’s a system that is too easy to corrupt, too easy to take advantage of, and our lack of judicial review limits the ways in which government can be challenged. The notion that governments are always benevolent is a very poor foundation for a Democratic political system.

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