Since I know you’ve been losing sleep over whether responsible government is a legitimate constitutional convention of Canadian parliament, I thought I’d take a minute to get to the bottom of it.
First, what it is:
Jennifer Smith (1999) posits responsible government (RG) as the organizing principle of several interlocking components that comprise the Westminster system of government—the electoral system, party discipline, democratic representation, adversarialism, majority rule, and a ‘separation’ of constitutionally defined powers. As the institutional design of Parliament, responsible government confers sovereignty in the Queen and holds Her Majesty’s Government to account by requiring the confidence of the directly elected House. Through this mechanism, Parliament is assembled through direct lines of accountability.
If a vote of confidence is lost, then constitutional convention dictates that the Prime Minister must request the Governor General to dissolve parliament and issue the writ of election. In exercising these prerogative powers of the Crown, the primacy of the Queen is respected as the seat of sovereign authority. The powers of the Crown are executed on the advice of the Prime Minister (PM), whose power is limited by their support in the House.
Per Smith, the central convention of RG is the requirement that the government maintain the confidence of the lower chamber, which thereby “enables the voters to easily identify the political players who are responsible for the public-policy agenda of the day and to punish and reward these players at the next general election” (p. 399). The ability to identify these actors, and their ability to work cohesively in the national interest, relies upon a degree of partisanship in the form of party discipline (p. 405). In this respect, partisanship resolves the tension between competing popular conceptions of representation that hold parliamentarians to act as both local-level delegates and national-level representatives (p. 405).
Next, its criticisms:
Several perceived flaws are found in the current system. Savoie (1999) found that RG as an accountability mechanism has failed to prevent the PM from consolidating power within his circle of courtiers such that both Cabinet and Parliament are increasingly bypassed in the policy-making and agenda-setting processes (p. 98). According to Docherty (2014), an excess of confidence votes has caused party discipline to interfere with RG’s function of representing the electorate (pp. 154,168). Forsey (2009) censures the Crown’s uncritical allegiance to the advice of the Prime Minister in dissolving and proroguing Parliament.
Bearing these issues in mind, Peter Aucoin et al. (2011) challenge Smith by essentially positing a reverse conception of RG that sees it as a means to parliamentary democracy rather than an organizational end in itself (p. 212). They see the failures of RG as being representative of institutional deficiencies around flimsy constitutional conventions and sweeping executive powers invulnerable to democratic checks from the House.
Now, let’s look at why reform efforts have failed:
Aucoin et al. (2011) put forth a series of radical reform proposals that undermine the rules and principles of RG. These include constitutional amendments requiring the consent of two-thirds of the House to prorogue Parliament, and a “constructive non-confidence procedure” that limits the incidence of confidence motions and, in turn, reducing party discipline (p. 225). As noble as ‘democratizing’ appears, these proposals fail to account for the fact that sovereignty, under RG, rests with the Crown, who delegate the attendant responsibilities not to Parliament but to her officers in the Queen’s Privy Council. Reform efforts of this kind privilege a delegative model of representation that demands agency and local-level representation from MPs, however this interferes with RG’s constitutional function—to ensure stability, predictability, clear accountability, and the maintenance of the national interest.
Ultimately, this embraces a theory of representation essential to Edmund Burke’s trustee model whereby legislators are sufficiently free to exercise their will with the public interest in mind, rather than their local constituency. This is in stark contrast to James Madison’s republican-inspired delegative model that sees representatives as local-level delegates tasked with expressing the will of their community. Where you align yourself among these two theories will inextricably guide your placement in the larger debate on responsible government.
As Smith advises, we are due to correct perceived democratic deficits but we ought to remain “cautious” by providing reasonable checks that are consistent with RG. Smith suggests an overhaul of our electoral system to a form of proportional representation as a means of inhibiting majority governments and restoring greater agency in the House, without thwarting the ordering principle from which sovereignty and accountability emanate. To suggest that the principle of responsible government itself can be reformed is to suggest that one lacks a full appreciation of its function.
Jennifer Smith (1999) “Democracy and the Canadian House of Commons at the Millenium”, Canadian Public Administration, 42(4): 398-421
Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis, and Lori Turnbull (2011) Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government. Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications.
Donald Savoie (2009) “Power at the Apex: Executive Dominance” in Canadian Politics (6th ed.) by James Bickerton.