What does ministerial accountability mean anymore?

A very relevant discussion from The National last night.

Here is the 2011 edition of Accountable Government, a guide for ministers and ministers of state, as signed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A few excerpts from Mr. Harper’s preface.

Key among your duties is to ensure that your department and portfolio are managed soundly and with complete integrity, with careful regard to the particular powers, duties and functions assigned to you by statute and convention…

As Ministers of the Crown, we are individually and collectively accountable to Parliament. This accountability is given daily expression in parliamentary proceedings, and we must continually demonstrate our commitment to and respect for the parliamentary process.

As a Minister, you are individually accountable to Parliament for the discharge of all responsibilities vested in you. You must answer all questions pertaining to your areas of responsibility, correcting any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity. And you must demonstrate that you are taking corrective action, as appropriate and within your authority, to address any problems that may arise within your portfolio.

Shortly after this there is a section entitled “Ministerial Accountability.”

It is critical to the principle of responsible government that all organizations within the executive be the responsibility of a Minister who is accountable to Parliament for the organization. A Minister is accountable to Parliament for the proper functioning of his or her department and all other organizations within his or her portfolio.

Ministers fulfill their accountability with respect to organizations by demonstrating appropriate diligence and competence in the discharge of their responsibilities. What constitutes appropriate ministerial oversight will depend on the nature of the organization and the Minister’s role. In some cases, where arm’s-length bodies are concerned and most powers, duties and functions are vested in a deputy head or governing body, the Minister’s engagement will be at a systemic level—for example, making or recommending appropriate appointments, approving corporate plans, or examining the need for changes to the framework legislation.

Ministerial accountability to Parliament does not mean that a Minister is presumed to have knowledge of every matter that occurs within his or her department or portfolio, nor that the Minister is necessarily required to accept blame for every matter. It does require that the Minister attend to all matters in Parliament that concern any organizations for which he or she is responsible, including responding to questions. It further requires that the Minister take appropriate corrective action to address any problems that may have arisen, consistent with the Minister’s role with respect to the organization in question.

The entire document is worth reviewing, but there would seem to be the basic ground rules. Reading on—and recalling the House of Commons order that precipitated a finding of contempt last year—there is also this at page 9.

In our system of government, Parliament is both the legislative branch and the pre-eminent institution of democratic accountability. Clear ministerial accountability to Parliament is fundamental to responsible government, and requires that Ministers provide Parliament with the information it needs to fulfill its roles of legislating, approving the appropriation of funds and holding the government to account. The Prime Minister expects Ministers to demonstrate respect and support for the parliamentary process.

For what it’s worth, there are five references to resigning or resignation: once to note that ministers who wish to publicly repudiate a decision of cabinet must resign before doing so, once to note that an individual could resign to pursue an otherwise verboten political activity and three times to note that the Prime Minister has the power to ask for a minister’s resignation.

And for the sake of reference, the parliamentary website maintains a list of all ministerial resignations since 1867.

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