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Responsible Government

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.

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