Wednesday, August 16, 2023

History of parliamentary conventions

Watching the corrupt and incompetent Ford government in Ontario trying to avoid the consequences of the Greenbelt Scandal brings me back to my recent post about "conventions" in Canadian politics, and my doubts about Professor Emmett Macfarlane's definition of conventions as "binding political rules of behaviour rooted in reason."

One of the core conventions of parliamentary politics -- one I expect Professor Macfarlane would considered covered by his definition -- is ministerial responsibility. The convention is that a cabinet minister must take responsibility for all action of his ministry (and indeed that the cabinet collectively is responsible for all cabinet decisions). Responsibility = resignation. 

Today in the Toronto Star, political consultant Marcel Wieder notes that Premier Ford is blatantly in violation of the convention. He writes:
This situation brings into question the traditional principle of ministerial responsibility. The Privy Council Office published a booklet titled “Governing Responsibly: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State” in 2004, outlining that “Ministers are individually responsible to Parliament and the Prime Minister for their own actions and those of their department, including the actions of all officials under their management and direction, whether or not the Ministers had prior knowledge.” The same conventions apply at the provincial level.

What happens when Premier Ford and his cabinet minister ignore the convention and try to place responsibility on one political staffer? It turns out that the convention of ministerial responsibility does not bind and reason does not seem to apply. 

I would say the convention used to apply because parliaments were willing to uphold it. In 1873 Prime Minister John A Macdonald resigned because his majority had begun to collapse as once loyal backbenchers committed to voting with the opposition -- parliament wanted him out, and he did not stay on for a formal vote.  More recently Erin O'Toole resigned as leader of the opposition when his caucus (a subset of Parliament, but sufficient) deserted him. That was a rule-based removal rather than a convention-driven one, but with the same effect.

But in Canadian parliamentary practice today, it is accepted, for all practical purposes, that parliaments and caucuses are accountable to the executive, rather than vice versa. As long as a government leader has a blindly loyal majority who will not hold him or her to account under any circumstances, the convention ceases to bind.  That suggests the convention is operating by my definition:

a convention is a practice that  tends to makes the running of a political system more efficient and practical, which does not contravene existing law, and which Parliament allows to persist.

An alert and active Parliament is the essential enforcer of all parliamentary conventions.  We do not have alert and active parliaments in Canada today, and as long as our elected MPs (MPPs, MNAs, MLAs, etc.) allow that situation to continue, we should not take any so-called convention to be "binding" because there are no parliaments willing to enforce them. Ministerial responsibility is no longer enforceable. 

Reason? Always a romantic notion in politics without a force behind it. 

(Note: the behaviour of the Ford government certainly has analogies in the Liberal government in Ottawa and in provincial governments elsewhere in Canada. The convention is no longer enforced anywhere in Canada.  Make your own analogies to the end of impeachment as a remedy in American politics -- impeachment became a dead letter in parliamentary systems long ago, replaced by parliamentary accountability. 

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