The Conservative government changed the federal accountability guidelines for cabinet ministers and secretaries of state. This is the type of thing that can seem dry and administrative and probably won’t make headlines for long, but please take note: this is an important message from the Conservative government that conveys their interpretation of how parliamentary government works.
The issue at the heart of the change is the meaning and significance of ministerial responsibility – an essential component of a Westminster parliamentary system like ours. When the Conservatives came to federal office in 2006, the guidelines explained that ministers were responsible for the actions of their staffers, “whether or not the minister had prior knowledge.” But the 2011 version says not only that ministers don’t have to know everything that goes on their departments, but they don’t have to take responsibility for everything either. That’s a complete about-face. And the current guidelines, no matter how sensible they might seem on the surface, are not acceptable in a parliamentary government.
Ministerial responsibility in our system means that ministers must be accountable for what goes on in their departments. This includes the actions of political staffers who are appointed by the minister and are not accountable or answerable to the public. Ministers must answer questions in the House of Commons (usually in Question Period) and correct problems when they arise. If there is a problem, question, or concern, a minister cannot shirk responsibility by pleading ignorance. It is a minister’s job to know.
The logic behind the doctrine of ministerial responsibility goes like this: the minister is the only person in the department who is elected and, therefore, accountable to the public. We cannot hold political staffers to account, as they serve at the pleasure of their ministers and are not subject to public scrutiny. If staffers make mistakes, deliberate or not, the buck stops with the minister.
Now, to be clear: ministerial responsibility is a political phenomenon more than a legal one. It doesn’t mean that if a staffer breaks the law, the minister goes to jail. Legal culpability lies with the individual responsible no matter what. However, in politics, holding ministers to account is our only recourse when trying to determine what went wrong in a department. If the minister won’t tell us, no one will.
In the context of the ongoing scandal involving the Senate, the Prime Minister’s Office, and Nigel Wright, the altered guidelines suggest that the Prime Minister, the minster for the PMO, does not need to accept responsibility for the actions of Nigel Wright or any other staffer in the office. Canadians are supposed to accept the excuse that if he didn’t know, it’s not his problem. But the government cannot simply dismiss ministerial responsibility as some antiquated notion that has no relevance. To the contrary, our system’s democratic integrity depends on ministerial accountability in the House of Commons.
Many people are waiting for Nigel Wright to talk to us, to defend himself, and to give us his version of events. A common refrain can be heard: if Wright believed his actions were lawful, why doesn’t he defend his reputation? Here’s the reality: Nigel Wright is a private citizen who owes us no explanation. It is the Prime Minister who must start explaining.
Lori Turnbull is an associate professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax. With Mark D. Jarvis and the late Peter Aucoin, she wrote Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government.