Thursday, 13 December 2012

Peter MacKay and the Slow, Agonizing Death of Responsible Government

At the core of the Canadian system of Parliament government is said to be the basic principle of responsible government wherein the political executive is held to account for its conduct before a popularly elected legislative assembly. The Canadian experiment with responsible government emerged largely out of a desire to seize control of the public purse by taking discretionary spending decisions out of the hands of the appointed governor – then responsible to the Imperial Parliament at Westminster – and placing them more broadly within the democratic control of the colony’s assembly. In short, while the concept has since morphed and expanded to encompass a broader conceptualization of accountability, it remains at its core a system primarily concerned with ensuring accountability over spending. Funds for the executive and its programs are issued from Parliament and it is here that a ministry must account for itself.

Integral to this system are three broad principles to which the executive is bound: Cabinet solidarity, collective responsibility and ministerial responsibility. The first remains the strongest. The Cabinet, and hence the government, continues to speak with a single voice. The second is more nebulous a concept. Ultimately the Ministry as a whole is accountable for what transpires on its watch, but there are usually no ramifications. The legislature’s part of the equation – that of confidence – is rarely a card is plays. Extreme party discipline and an electoral system (within a realigned party system) which ensures majority governments ultimately means that the threat of losing confidence is not a viable mechanism of accountability. It is, in short, a routinzed function, much like royal assent.
This leaves ministerial responsibility, the part of the theory that is in the direst of straights. It is important to note that ministerial responsibility does not require a minister to resign from Cabinet for real or perceived failings.  Indeed, such instances are extremely rare. Only six ministers have resigned from the Harper government, none of which exited over failures in their respective departments (Oda resigned over inappropriate expenses, Bernier for leaving sensitive files, while Guergis was thrown under a bus). Calls for a resignation are, however, consistent but largely part of the theatre of Parliament. They remain extremely rare.

Ministers are expected to take responsibility for their actions – and those actions that transpire within their purview – but they are not expected nor required to resign. Accepting responsibility is all responsible government, at its most basic level, requires. If new rules are put in place to prevent a recurrence or remedy the problem entirely then more the better.

The problem is absent an effective mechanism of control – confidence as a tool is not adequate – responsible government is effectively a voluntaristic system in which the political executive decides when it wishes to subject itself to Parliamentary scrutiny and accept responsibility for its actions. The Harper government has been loath to accept responsibility, even when reality is glaring at it. Moreover, it has done more to hammer the nail in responsible government’s coffin than past governments.
The laundry list is long. The government has consistently withheld information from Parliament and its agents, from the Afghan detainee fiasco to a failure to provide information to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It has consistently used procedural moves such as invoking closure and the routine tabling of omnibus bills to limit parliamentary scrutiny. It mandated across the board cuts of 10% to the budgets of the officers of Parliament, including the Auditor General. It has further reduced the efficacy of committees to scrutinize the actions of the government. In short, it has systematically deprived or reduced the capacity of the House of Commons to undertake its oversight responsibilities.

It has done even more to undermine its own responsibilities through collective and ministerial responsibility.  It has further reduced Question Period – more aptly rhetorical question and rhetorical answer period – to a farce. As the sole time designated in which the Ministry is called directly to account, it has been used largely as misdirection, avoidance and obfuscation. When called upon ministers are under no obligation to respond, more often then not the minister remains silent while a colleague responds in his stead. This has been a tried tactic, clearly evidenced from a host of troubled ministers from Clement to Oda and now MacKay, who has much more to answer for.

MacKay feels no need to account for his actions despite is central role in the F-35 fiasco. Instead he has not only passed the buck but has denied any wrongdoing or error in the process noting: “We followed the Treasury Board guidelines and we followed the practice for reporting on military procurement”. Simply following guidelines is neither an excuse nor something that absolves ministers of their responsibility. There are more troubling questions as well, particularly about the costing of the aircraft and when the government knew the price they had been selling to the Canadian public was inaccurate – or, more aptly, a lie.

Neither scenario is good for MacKay. Either he didn’t know the true cost of the program – in which case he is grossly incompetent – or he knew and obscured the facts from both the public and Parliament – in which case he lied.  This is the kind of no-win scenario which most screams out for a resignation: the gross mismanagement of public funds and consistent lack of accountability before Parliament. This is unlikely to happen. Indeed, the minister denies he is at fault. Moreover, he continues to remain in the favour of the Prime Minister.

The larger issue is the continued denigration of Canada’s Parliament to little more than a rubber stamp at best or an inconvenience to executive expedience at worst. The continued rejection of basic components of responsible government – ministerial and collective responsibility – coupled with a continued hollowing out of the ability of Parliament to enact its own side of the equation has only further impugned an important national institution. Moreover, individual Members of Parliament – particularly on the government benches – have lost sight of their role as Parliamentarians first and foremost before party loyalty. This is at the heart of something vitally important that has been lost. The institutionalization of the ‘Official Opposition’ has obscured that the fact that it is the House of Commons as a whole, not simply the opposition parties, that hold a government to account. The Conservative caucus and the Cabinet bear as much responsibility for ensuring the continued functioning of responsible government as the opposition parties do. Sadly, it seems they are content to hammering another nail into the coffin of responsible government, one unaccountable Cabinet minister at a time. 

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