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Their system vs. ours

I’d like to say a few words about the differences between parliamentary democracies, such as they have in the UK, Canada, and most other places in the world, and presidential republics like we have in the US. I’d like to say a few words, but it’s pretty hard, because the differences are many and complex — worthy of the sort of lengthy essay one might find on Wikipedia.

But because the topic comes up constantly in my work (reporting on gay-related bills passing through foreign parliaments) and because college poli sci classes seem to do an awfully bad job of explaining this stuff to students who become my interns, I want to highlight just a couple of the principal differences between the two systems — in very brief outline.

The main difference between the two systems of government is that parliamentary democracies have no separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. That is, the majority party (or coalition of parties) in Parliament is the government, and foreign newspapers use the terms “the government” and “majority party(s)” interchangeably. Typically, the government is led by a Prime Minister with the support of a bunch of cabinet ministers* (in charge of defense, foreign relations, health services and so on), all of whom are also voting members of parliament.

The members of the cabinet are usually referred to as “front-benchers,” because that’s where they sit in the Parliament. The minority or “opposition” parties (or “opposition coalition”) usually assemble a team of leaders or experts on all the cabinet ministries, who are referred to as “shadow ministers” or “critics” (Shadow Health Minister or Health Critic, etc.) Because of their seating location in Parliament, these opposition leaders are collectively referred to as “back-benchers.”

I could go on and on about how these differences affect the political system, how bills pass, and so forth (although there’s considerable variation from country to country), but I’ll stop here. I’ll probably add other pertinent observations later, as they arise in my work.

*I hope it goes without saying that in the context of a government, “minister” does not refer to a member of the clergy. A government minister in a parliamentary system corresponds to a cabinet secretary in the US system: (Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, etc.)


  1. […] already mentioned a few cases where I had to learn about other systems of government, or phraseology, or currency. Another translation issue that frequently crops up writing ledes is […]

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