Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Why responsible government is not a "convention"

The Ottawa journalist Dale Smith is a defender of parliamentary democracy and responsible government, and lately has been invoking both principles frequently against the civil illiteracy of almost everyone.

But Smith shares the widely-held misconception that responsible government is an unwritten convention of parliament, its only sanction being the mention in the British North America Act of Canada having a constitution "similar in principle" to that of the United Kingdom.

In fact, that's not the basis of responsible government in Canada.  Smith should look at Section 54 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which sets out in plain language that only the cabinet can make and propose the raising and spending of money. That is what defines the role of the cabinet of ministers. It budgets; it plans the getting and spending.  But then there is Section 53, which bluntly states that  only the House of Commons can give approval to the cabinet's proposals for getting and spending.

Since getting and spending money covers everything a government does, these two sections make the government responsible to the Commons, to which it must go for approval of its spending plans.  If the House disapproves of the government, it withholds the money and the government falls. The cabinet can operate even when the House is not sitting and can prorogue Parliament at will, That's no small power.  But Section 5 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (restating a rule from 1867) requires that there be a parliamentary session  at least once every twelve months, so a government that attempts to rule without parliament know it will inevitably get its comeuppance.

Canada does have a written constitution.  Responsible government is embedded in its text. There are various conventions about how responsible government operates, but the principle itself is set down in plain language. Janet Ajzenstat sets this all out in The Canadian Founding, pp. 59-60.  (And I followed her lead in Three Weeks in Quebec City: The Meeting that Made Canada, Chapter 16

Responsible government ... even stronger than you thought, Dale Smith.  But you have a point. I hear the Canadian Historical Association had a confederation session at its annual meeting last week, and mostly concluded the whole subject was boring and irrelevant and hardly worth covering.

Update, June 8: Dale Smith responds in detail, even suggesting I quote the wrong constitution, though the relevant text is the same whether it is 1867 or 1982. He shifts the discussion from responsibility to the Commons toward details of cabinet and party, but that too is diversionary. The constitution is economical, and does not spell out unnecessary things. The black letter of Section 53 and 54 confirms the GG can't get or spend money without the consent of the House, so s/he needs advisors able to organize secure that consent in the Commons. But the responsibility of the executive to the Commons is still rooted in the text, not convention.  

I was trying to wean Smith from his faith in convention in order to help strengthen his arguments about responsible government.  Oh well....  
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