The most meaningful thing a cabinet minister can do


National Post, 6 March 2019

Whatever plan the PMO had hatched to trash Jody Wilson-Raybould was stopped in its tracks by Jane Philpott’s resignation

In light of the resignation of Jane Philpott from cabinet, much was made of how well she had served in advancing various key files of the government. Much of what she advanced are actually steps backward — the health minister expanding the reach of marijuana use across the land — but it was when she stepped back that she most moved Canadian politics forward.

The resignation from cabinet is a key part of the Westminster system of responsible government. Philpott’s resignation, coming on the heels of the demotion of Jody Wilson-Raybould and her subsequent resignation, reminds us of how important resignations are. It is not unusual that resignation constitutes the most important contribution a cabinet minister can make.

Ministerial resignations for incompetence or corruption are the least important resignations. Those resignations are about the failings of the office-holder, and not about holding the entire government to account.

Ministerial resignations because of failures in the department are important, for they uphold the principle that sprawling government bureaucracies are held responsible to Parliament by their ministers, who sit in Parliament. That doctrine of “ministerial responsibility” — that the minister must answer for all serious matters in her department — has become severely attenuated. No minister, for example, has resigned over the Phoenix payroll problems, a fiasco stretching back to the previous government. Ministerial responsibility has withered for generations now, it being found less than congenial by ministers who prefer to cling to the power and perquisites of office.

The Philpott resignation is the most important kind of resignation in our Westminster system. The fact that it is so rare is an indication that our Westminster democracy is ailing.

A resignation because a minister is no longer able to give her assent to an important cabinet decision is a critical check on the near-limitless power of the cabinet, which commands a majority in the House of Commons. More to the point, as the power of the prime minister over cabinet has grown since the 1970s, the cabinet resignation is one of the few checks on his power.

Cabinet solidarity and cabinet confidentiality are both necessary for our system to work. But they also create a dynamic in which the prime minister can coerce ministers to go along with his agenda, knowing that any dissenting voices will not be heard. A prime minister — or his staff — can bully his ministers with impunity.

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