Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Ministerial Responsibility and the Machinery of Government

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Ministerial Responsibility and the Machinery of Government

Article excerpt

Ministerial responsibility and the capacity of first ministers to direct the machinery of government are essential for the maintenance of constitutional government in the Westminster system. Their importance far outweighs whatever merit attaches to the popular wisdom that the principles of ministerial responsibility are not followed in practice and that first ministers have concentrated power in their own hands at the expense of ministers and Parliament. This article demonstrates the continuing significance of ministerial responsibility in the day-to-day functioning of government and shows how the appropriate exercise of the first minister's machinery-of-government powers safeguards ministerial responsibility when its principles are applied throughout the organization of government.

There is considerable literature on the meaning and consequences of ministerial responsibility, much of which is focused on whether and when ministers should resign office, but the experts generally agree that the doctrine is a principle of the Constitution, not an outdated formula for managing the affairs of the state, as is sometimes suggested. (1) Commissions of inquiry in Canada have shown a particular susceptibility for the siren song of those who denigrate ministerial responsibility, as reflected in the reports of the Lambert Commission in 1979 and the Gomery Commission in 2006. (2) However well-intentioned, recommendations to dilute ministerial responsibility are not based on a clear grasp of the foundations of the Westminster constitution or--of equal importance--its practical application. Moreover, this distracting, decades-long debate over the continued relevance of ministerial responsibility has overshadowed its significance for the day-to-day functioning of government.

This article deals tangentially (and unfavourably) with the recommendations of the Gomery Commission concerning ministerial responsibility (principally the relationship between ministers and their deputies) and the machinery of government (principally proposals to reduce the authority of the prime minister for machinery). However, there is nothing advanced here that would challenge the new government's intention to make deputy ministers "accountable before the appropriate committee of Parliament" for administrative matters provided that--and this is crucial--this occurs, as is proposed, "within the framework of the appropriate minister's responsibilities." (3) These, however, are matters of the moment, and the wider purpose of this article is to explain the central and continuing importance of ministerial responsibility for the practical functioning and organization of constitutional government in Canada, which as a matter of observation is profoundly significant in the face of criticism that underrates the doctrine. Ministerial responsibility is essential to the proper functioning of the democratic parliamentary constitution, which in turn depends on the smooth functioning of the machinery of government under the central control of the prime minister. This is not to say that all is well, but that it would be a great deal worse if ministerial responsibility were to be marginalized. There is in particular a serious problem with over-concentration of power (particularly over policy, spending and communications) in the hands of first ministers, which in some provinces amounts to relegating ministers to mere assistants to the premier. (4) This is deplorable, but such adventurism with the Constitution is no reason to make matters worse by seeking to denigrate the importance of the doctrine or to weaken the claim of first ministers to exercise machinery-of-government powers. The essential point is that, without ministerial responsibility and prime ministerial control of the machinery of government, our Constitution will not work because the power of the state will not be subject to democratic control.

It is also important to bear in mind that ministerial responsibility works tolerably well in practice, notwithstanding particular lapses. …

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