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Dissolving the Ministry

  • Aug. 13th, 2015 at 11:44 AM
X-posted from [personal profile] penlessej.

Both section 5 of the Constitution Act, 1867 and section 4(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms limit the duration of a Parliament to five years (with the exception of times of war or insurrection). These sections translate into a system of democracy whereby elections must happen at least every five years. However, typically elections happen at more regular intervals as the governor general is bound through constitutional convention to dissolve Parliament at the request of the prime minister. The prime minister themselves may resign his or her government at any time or is bound to seek dissolution from the governor general after a no confidence vote in the House of Commons. Furthermore, specific to the current election campaign, Parliament has bound itself to fixed election dates through a 2007 amendment to the Canada Elections Act which made provision for a general election “on the third Monday in October every four years.” (Note: even under the amendments, the convention for the prime minister to seek dissolution in the event of a loss of confidence stands).

The mechanism whereby a Parliament is dissolved is central to responsible government in Canada. The heart of a ministry is the cabinet which provides advice to the Sovereign, controls the public service, and remains collectively responsible to the legislature. Governments in Canada are appointed, not elected, and their membership is drawn from the legislature. This is fundamental in a system of responsible government. This appointment does not last for a set term but stands until the minister dies, resigns or is dismissed. The sections contained within our constitutional documents which provide for a dissolution every five years, binds the prime minister to resign the government and thus exercise one of the three conditions upon which a ministry comes to an end. The appointment cannot be made possible without the individual first being elected as a member of the legislature. Thus, the minister also has an individual responsibility to the House of Commons. It is generally accepted that a minister is responsible for their ministry and is accountable to Parliament for their actions while in power. This personal responsibility generally guides how and when a minister should resign and when and how it should be asked for by the legislature.

The overarching theme of ministerial responsibility is its collective nature. The formation of the ministry rests on the concept of a collection of people having the ability to command the confidence of the legislature. Its continued existence rests on its ability to pass legislation and measures within the House of Commons. And its dissolution comes about through collective resignation. It would be absurd to permit a government to continue to function within a democracy when it is unable to pass a budget measure or advance its mandate. The ministry can only continue to function after a loss of confidence within the House of Commons if it is sustained by the electorate in a general election.

Democracy demands that executive governments be elected by the people. This concept emphasizes the formation of a democratic government which can claim legitimate power within society. Key to this concept is the function of terminating a government in order to permit democratic elections and thus enable the formation of a representative government. Constitutional documents in Canada limit the extreme length of parliamentary terms to five years and through convention provide expectations for governments in the event of a loss of legitimate authority. This is the essence of responsible government. A democratic government must be responsible in its formation, execution and dissolution.