Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Border-Crossing: The PBO, PCO and the Boundary of the Public Service

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Border-Crossing: The PBO, PCO and the Boundary of the Public Service

Article excerpt

The period from 2006 to 2015 turned out to be another chapter in the ongoing struggle for responsible government in Canada. Not since Sir Charles Metcalfe, in the 1840s, have those in power shown such determined resistance to responsible government in Canadian parliamentary democracy. The principles of responsible government achieved in 1848 (Martin 1955) again came under attack by the Harper administration, over 150 years later.

This is the context in which to assess the controversy between the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) and the Privy Council Office (PCO) in 2012, when the Clerk of the Privy Council took it upon himself to refuse the PBO's request for information on departmental savings measures announced in the 2012 Budget. After reviewing the principles of responsible government and the Harper Ministry's approach to them, this article recalls the sequence of events in the PBO/PCO affair, as well as PCO's 2014 defence of the Clerk's conduct in 2012. It then examines the PCO defence from two angles: whether it is supported by the evidence; and what the consequences would be if it were accepted as true. Based on this analysis, the article revisits the question of whether, by his role in this controversy, the Clerk of the Privy Council crossed the boundary between non-partisan and partisan behaviour. Because, if so, this incident is an important case study in the imperatives of public service leadership in a system of responsible government. It also provides additional evidence of the need to re-establish the boundary that should exist between elected and unelected officials in a parliamentary democracy (Heintzman 2013).

The principles of responsible government

In a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy like ours, the basic principle is that the executive is "responsible" to the legislature. Unlike the American Congressional system, there is no constitutional separation of powers in Canada, between the executive and the legislature. In our parliamentary democracy, the executive is present in the legislature, is directly responsible or accountable to it, and depends on it, including for its very life, or existence (Aucoin et al 2004).

From this basic principle, three others follow. The first is that the executive only holds office as long as it enjoys the "confidence" or support of a majority of the members of the House of Commons. We do not elect governments in Canada. We elect the members of the House of Commons. It is the House which decides which party (or combination of parties) enjoys its "confidence," and shall therefore form the Ministry which--as long as it continues to enjoy such confidence--carries on the Queen's government in Canada.

The second principle which follows from the basic principle of responsible government is that the current Ministry is accountable to the House of Commons, not just in this ultimate, life-and-death sense, but also in a regular, everyday sense. In order for the House to determine whether to maintain or withdraw its "confidence," it must exercise an ongoing "oversight" role, in which the current Ministry renders a daily account to the House of its stewardship of the Queen's government in Canada.

The third principle is that the legislature has central roles to play in both the legislative and the budgetary process. The legislature's approval is required not only for legislation but for the raising of all revenue, and for all expenditure. The last two are the bedrock of parliamentary democracy. Both in Britain and in Canada, the struggle for responsible government in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a struggle for control of the public purse, not by the Crown or the executive, but by the House of Commons.

The necessary condition for all three principles of responsible government to operate effectively is the provision of adequate information to the House of Commons (Aucoin and Jarvis 2005: 36-7, 72-3). …

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