Talk at the University explains unique structure of Australia’s government

Jeremy Thomas

Howard Schweber, professor of political science adn legal studies at the University of Wisconinsin, Madison, labeled the Australian government as a bizarre, dysfunctional hybrid in a talk given at UT on Friday.

Political scientist Elaine Thompson coined the term “Washminster mutation” to describe the Australian system of government and how the Australian constitution mixes elements from the United States system of government with the conventions and customs of the Westminster system.

Schweber argued that two additional dimensions structure the Washminster mutation: judicial review and the executive government.

“Australia features substantive judicial review on the one hand, so kind of American in that way, but has no bill of rights on the other,” Schweber said. “In fact, it doesn’t even have the kind of statutes and functions bills of rights in UK, Canada and New Zealand [have] for example.”

Schweber said Australian governor-generals have overarching constitutional powers over the prime minister but rarely exercise those reserve powers because of political convention. Mostly, the governor-general acts only at the advice of the prime minster.

“The constitutional text says the governor-general is the commander in chief of the armed forces, the person who forms and dismisses the government and has complete control over all executive functions,” Schweber said. “It’s a list of powers that is breathtaking by British standards and would make American presidents green with envy.”

Schweber said culture plays a critical role in why the majority of Australians seem OK with the Washminster mutation.

“It is about the tradition of ‘making us,’ pragmatism and the self-conception of Australians for people who don’t really have political ideologies,” Schweber said. “It’s partly a kind of deviant: ‘This is our way; we are exceptional.’ It’s partly a general sense of trust, partly to do with racialist exclusionary attitudes.”

Despite complications in the hybrid system of government, Schweber said it continues to function.

“It can’t possibly function [and] has no justification in any theoretical literature I am aware, yet it seems to work pretty well and shows no signs of changing in any time in the future [because it] pleases its own citizens tremendously,” Schweber said.

Government graduate student Luke Perez said the characteristics of Australian culture interested him the most.

“I think culture is something that, as a social scientist, is less [tangible] than other metrics like public opinion,” Perez said. “We can measure public opinion by running opinion polls, but you can’t really measure culture.”

Rhonda Evans Case, government adjunct associate professor and interim director of the Clark Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies, said even unusual arrangements can work if they are suited to the cultural soil where they are meant to apply.

“It is not about getting the right constitution,” Evans Case said. “It’s really [about getting] the right fit. In some ways, the arrangements have to fit the society, so it might look strange and unworkable, but it works.”