Thoughts on Responsible Government

  • Aug. 13th, 2015 at 11:46 AM
X-posted from [personal profile] penlessej.

When Canada became a confederation of provinces of the British Empire, the Fathers of Confederation envisioned a system of government that was to be responsible in nature. This concept of a responsible government was not born specifically out of the Confederation conferences, but rather was born out of decades of struggle between the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada as well as the United Province of Canada. Before we can understand what a responsible government look like in Parliament, one must understand the historical and legal concept of responsible government as a whole.

In broad political science terms the concept of responsible government states that Westminster democracies are accountable to Parliament. This is in contrast to a system where executive members of government are accountable to the monarch (often through an appointed representative). In Canada, responsible government has been linked with the concept of self-government. The idea that functions of the executive, such as the administration of monetary bills, be conducted by members elected by citizens rather than elites appointed by the Governor-General. The first executive Council of a Canadian colony to first achieve responsible government was in Nova Scotia on 2 February 1848. The government of Joseph Howe was formed by members of the elected legislature. In the Province of Canada the structure of responsible government was put to the test under the strains of relations with French-Canadians from what was formerly Lower Canada. These tensions became particularly evident in 1849 when the Rebellion Losses Bill was passed in the legislature. Despite having misgivings over the bill due to the fact that it had enraged English Canadians by compensating so-called rebels, the Governor-General, Lord Elgin, gave Royal Assent. Regardless of the opposition of a large segment of Canadian society, the Governor-General gave way to the concept of responsible government.

In modern terms, responsible government in Canada manifests itself in several ways. First of all, members of the government are selected among elected members of Parliament. The person who selects these members is themselves selected among elected members of Parliament. This person is invited by the Governor-General as a result of them being able to form a government which could maintain the confidence of the legislature. Once a government is formed in Canada responsible government is maintained through ministerial accountability to Parliament. What this means is that ministers are accountable for their actions before elected representatives. This has traditionally manifested itself in ministers making announcements within the House of Commons and subjecting them to scrutiny. The daily period reserved for Oral Questions in Parliament is also a manifestation of responsible government and ministerial accountability. Another aspect of responsible government while a government has been formed is that the Governor-General will not refuse to grant Royal Assent to legislation which is been duly read and ratified by Parliament. In order for a government in Canada to remain in power it must maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. That means that at any time during the ministry the government can face a motion of non-confidence which would trigger the resignation of said ministry (which may or may not lead to an election). There are also certain pieces of legislation which are considered matters of confidence in and of themselves, these include the annual budget and the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne which opens Parliament.

One can see with a simplified explanation of responsible government in Canada that it is possible that today we do not have responsible government. This potential fact is not unique to the ministry which is currently in power nor is it unique to the ministry directly before it. The alleged slide away from responsible government within our parliamentary system has been gradual and started when the Prime Minister’s Office established regional desks in the 1960s and began to take parliamentary responsibilities away from Members of Parliament. It has been assisted with the growth of the party apparatus away from a system of patronage and towards a system of concentrated control power. Again, this is not unique to any one ministry or any one party in Canada at this time. Members of Parliament are asserted no longer act as representatives for the people who elect them. There are no longer incentives in place for representatives to serve the interests of the people but there are rather strong incentives or Members of Parliament to bend to the wills of a select few in exchange for a piece of the consolidated power.

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.

General ruminations on political reform

  • May. 1st, 2009 at 9:03 AM
On Monday of this week, Garth Turner was on Don Newman's Politics to promote his new book, Sheeple. I've not read the book yet, but Turner raised a few interesting points (hardly unique ones - others have raised these issues too):
  • the PM has too much power
  • a lot of people (maybe most), when they vote in general elections, are actually voting for who they want as PM and not for who they really want as their MP
  • because our system is based on party discipline, individual MPs, esp. backbenchers and independents, have no real power and have to toe the party line even if the party line is hurtful to their riding and constituents
Turner essentially stated that we should reconsider our form of parliamentary democracy and maybe start looking at a system similar to what they have in the US - where people could vote directly for who they'd like to see as PM, while still electing a local MP.

I'm putting this out more in the hope of generating some interesting back and forth on what you think works in our system of government, what you think could work better. Do you agree with the above points? Would you like to see less party-centric focus and give individual MPs far more freedom than they currently enjoy? I know any major changes would most likely involve having to change the constitution, and yes, i know, nobody wants to go there, but lets just forget about that for the moment. If you could wave a magic wand and reform our political system without having to worry about the constitution and all that, what would you like to change?

Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson has some interesting proposals for how to reform the post of GG. In short, she suggests:
  • The Prime Minister would still nominate a candidate;
  • the candidate would then be vetted by Parliament - in televised hearings so that the Canadian people could get a sense of the person;
  • the term would be limited to 6 years, which would allow the GG to experience two governments, which constitutionally are limited to five years, and therefore be experienced in office when or if the government changed.
Of course, there is also the argument that we simply do away with the position altogether, or that we elect our head of state. Both of those options would require changing the constitution, while i don't think the above would require any constitutional tinkering.