President or Prime Minister?
Have you ever wondered what the difference between President and Prime Minister is? Or maybe you've wondered why other countries don't have a President. Well, the answers lie in understanding the differences between a presidential versus a parliamentary system of government. Sometimes in the U.S., we forget that not every democracy looks exactly like ours, and learning how a parliamentary system works will help you understand how other democratic countries like Australia and Germany govern themselves.
Defining Parliamentary Government
Parliamentary government is a democratic form of government in which the political party that wins the most seats in the legislature or parliament during the federal election forms the government. This majority party chooses a leader to be the Prime Minister or Chancellor, and other high-ranking members of the party make up the cabinet. The minority party forms the opposition, and its job is to challenge the majority party. If no party is able to win a majority in the election, a coalition government will be formed with a few political parties cooperating together.
It's called 'parliamentary government' because all of the power is vested in the parliament. In a presidential system like the United States, the executive branch is separate, and the president is popularly elected by the citizens of the nation. In a parliamentary system, the head of the government is chosen from the parliament, and is often one of the most senior members or ministers in parliament, which is where we get the term 'Prime Minister.' Often in a parliamentary system, the country will have a Head of State, who is a ceremonial figure like the Queen, but does not engage in legislating or politics.
Examples: Australia and Germany
Parliamentary government originated in Great Britain, and now countries all over the world use this form of democracy. For example, Australia and Germany both have a parliamentary government, but there are a few differences between them.
Australia, a member of the British Commonwealth, has a form of parliamentary government that is similar to Great Britain. Its Parliament has two houses; the Senate and the House of Representatives just like the United States Congress. The political party that wins the most seats in the House of Representatives forms the government and chooses the Prime Minister. In Australia, the floor of the Parliament is the site of vigorous debate. The majority and minority parties face off regularly to discuss legislation. There's often a lot of shouting and taunting! The Prime Minister takes part in the debates, and must be prepared to join the fray to propose and defend his or her decisions.
Germany also has a two-house Parliament. The Bundesrat is the upper house like the senate, and the Bundestag is the lower house like the House of Representatives. The majority party in the Bundestag elects a Chancellor who leads the government. Unlike Australia, most debates happen in small committee meetings. Then the committees bring a bill to the plenary chamber where it goes to a vote. That means there's a lot less fighting in the plenary chamber.
Parliamentary Government Advantages
One of the biggest advantages to parliamentary government is that it's really efficient. In a Presidential system like the U.S., it's pretty common for the President and the Congress to represent different political parties. In theory, this can be a check on power, but often leads to gridlock. You might remember how this was a huge problem in 2013 when the President and the Congress could not agree on how to solve the debt crisis, and this lead to a government shutdown.
In parliamentary government, the executive and the parliament are unified, and the government can pass laws more quickly and efficiently with its majority. This also means that there's a lot less finger-pointing. If a law is unpopular, the government must take full responsibility, and can't blame the opposition party. The public can hold the majority party accountable for all of its decisions, because it's obvious who made them.
In a presidential system, a President has more power than a Prime Minister, and may become authoritarian. It is also much harder to remove an unpopular President. A Prime Minister must constantly prove themselves worthy of the office. If they fail, they can be removed overnight.
Parliamentary Government Disadvantages
A big disadvantage to this system is that the government can be unstable. Unlike a President, the prime minister or chancellor is elected by the majority party, and can be removed at any time if the majority party loses confidence in that person as leader. For example, in Australia, these leadership spills have occurred several times in the last five years. In 2010, the Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, was replaced by Julia Gillard, another member of the Labor party, after they passed a vote of no confidence in him. Julia Gillard survived one leadership spill, but in 2013, Kevin Rudd replaced her as Prime Minister after she was defeated in a vote. Also in February 2015, the Liberal Party took control of the government, and Prime Minister Tony Abbot faced and survived his first leadership spill. However, over in Germany, Angela Merkel is marking her tenth year as Chancellor!
Another disadvantage is that the minority party has much less power, and can be oppressed by the majority. That means opinions held by other smaller parties can be overlooked or rejected in the government.
Parliamentary government is a type of democratic government in which the political party that wins the most seats in the parliament forms the government. That party will choose a leader as Prime Minister or Chancellor, who acts as the head of the government. Countries all over the world use the parliamentary system, including Great Britain, Germany, and Australia.
Some advantages of the parliamentary system is that it's efficient, the public an hold the majority party accountable for it's decisions, and a Prime Minister must constantly prove himself. Some disadvantages of the parliamentary system are issues of instability, such as leadership spills, and an oppressed minority opinion.
Parliamentary Government Key Terms, Advantages & Disadvantages
- Parliamentary Government: a democratically elected government in which the party with the most seats forms the government
- Parliament: the legislative division in which elected members are seated
- Prime Minister/Chancellor: leader of the winning party who leads the government
|More efficient||Unstable governments|
|Unified executive and parliament||PM/Chancellor can be easily replaced if confidence is lost|
|Legislation passes more quickly and the public holds majority responsible||Minority parties can be overwhelmed by majority and their opinions overlooked|
After watching the lesson on parliamentary governments, apply what you've learned in order to:
- Describe a parliamentary government
- Identify countries that have parliamentary governments
- Detail the advantages and disadvantages of parliamentary government
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Prompts About Parliamentary Government:
Essay Prompt 1:
In approximately two to three paragraphs, write an essay that explains the definition of parliamentary government and describes the components of a parliamentary government.
Example: In a parliamentary government, the minority party is the opposition to the majority party that is in power.
Essay Prompt 2:
Write an essay of approximately one to two pages that describes the parliamentary governments of Australia and Germany, and compares and contrasts the two.
Example: Both Australia and Germany have two-house parliaments.
Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:
Create a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that presents the advantages of a parliamentary government.
Example: Efficiency, especially because the legislature and the prime minister or chancellor are united.
Graphic Organizer Prompt 2:
Make a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that depicts the disadvantages of a parliamentary government. Make sure that your graphic organizer defines the concept of leadership spills.
Example: There can be instability, especially since the prime minister or chancellor can be removed from power at the request of the majority party.
Make a list of at least five countries that have parliamentary governments.
Tip: Refer to the map presented in the lesson!
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