Presidents and Parliaments

I don’t wish to dwell on this in particular, but let me start here:

Trump slammed outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tweeting that Ryan “should be focusing on holding the Majority” instead of weighing in on the president’s push to end the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.

Trump tweeted that Ryan shouldn’t offer “his opinions on Birthright Citizenship, something he knows nothing about!”

Trump has said he can end the right to citizenship for babies born to non-U.S. citizens on American soil with an executive order. And he has argued that the right isn’t covered by the 14th Amendment, even though the text of the constitutional amendment says that “all persons born or naturalized” in the U.S. are citizens.

Ryan, who is retiring, said Tuesday that Trump couldn’t “end birthright citizenship with an executive order.”

As a matter of fact, Trump can probably do exactly that (see here and here).

My real point though is to focus on the difference between the American presidential system and our Parliamentary system. In a presidential system, presidents are elected in their own right and once elected become an independent locus of power, with the constitutional authority to make decisions and enforce the law. In a parliamentary system, the head of government is the leader of the majority party in the House of Representatives (or the House of Commons in the UK and Canada) and is hemmed in by the necessity for cabinet solidarity.

Therefore, if the US had a parliamentary system, Paul Ryan, as the “Speaker of the House” would have been Prime Minister (and Nancy Pelosi before that). A Donald Trump would have had zero chance to have had any influence whatsoever on American policy – unless he owned Facebook, Google or Twitter.

The differences are immense when it comes to understanding just how much of a free hand a Prime Minister in Australia has. Neither Tony nor Malcolm had a free hand in making policy decisions stick. Nor can Scott Morrison. It is the party room that matters with some PMs achieving a freer hand than others. So when I say that Tony Abbott was our Donald Trump, I only mean that both were trying to achieve the same kinds of ends, all the while recognising there are different sets of constraints imposed by the institutional structures of our two very different political systems.

The plain reality is that there are massive constraints in every system that make it difficult to achieve particular ends. Global warming hysteria, to take one example, is mainstream and we might consider ourselves lucky that we are only going to blow another $15 billion on climate change. Of course, had Hillary been elected President instead of PDT, even that would have been small change. There is a deep state everywhere.

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