Responsible Government in 1867

In response to my blog last week on the article in the current APSR referring to Canada as a country that does not have a written constitution, Andrew Smith writes:

“Does Canada have a written constitution? According to a recent article in the American Political Science Review by James Fink, Canada’s constitution is entirely customary or unwritten. As political scientist Janet Ajzenstat points out, Canada has a written constitution. I would add, however, that the unwritten parts of the Canadian constitution are more important than the written documents. This is probably what Fink meant to say.”

Professor Smith is no doubt thinking of “responsible government,” the constitutional principle that defines parliamentary systems. It is commonly said that in the Canadian Constitution, “responsible government” rests on an unwritten constitutional convention.

Thus Peter Russell writes (Constitutional Odyssey, page 26): “[The Fathers of Confederation] saw no need to spell out the democratic principle that government be directed by ministers who have the confidence of the elected branch of the legislature … The principle of responsible government would continue to depend on unwritten constitutional convention. The only hint of responsible government in the final constitutional text is the reference in the preamble to the BNA Act to a ‘Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.’”

But Russell’s wrong. Smith’s wrong.

The prevailing view in political science is wrong. The British North America Act, now called the Constitution Act (1867), describes and guarantees “responsible government.” To repeat; “responsible government” is entrenched in words in the 1867 Act. (Admittedly the term is not used, perhaps because in the 1860s it was only sometimes employed to refer to parliamentary government; it could describe a more republican system, or indeed any form of government of which a speaker or writer approved.)

Let me direct readers to sections 53 and 54 of the Constitution Act (1867). Section 53 says that money bills, that is, bills for appropriating “any part of the public revenue,” or for imposing “any tax or impost” must originate in the House of Commons. The all-important consequence of section 53 is that the government of the day cannot raise or spend money without the approval of the people’s elected representatives. In short it entrenches the principle, familiar from British history and American rhetoric of: “no taxation without representation.”

Section 54 supplies the limitation on the “no taxation” principle that distinguishes parliamentary systems from presidential ones. The House of Commons may consider only those money bills recommended to them by “message of the Governor-General,” (that is, by the Governor-General’s advisors, cabinet, the ministers; see section 13).

The effect of sections 53 and 54 is that neither the ministers nor the House of Commons can tax or spend independently. The Commons, relying on 53, may reject cabinet’s proposals, but cannot take the initiative. The ministers govern, but cannot act without the people’s approval through their elected representatives.

Voilà! Responsible government.


10 Responses to “Responsible Government in 1867”

  1. 1 Stephen MacLean October 5, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Kudos to Dr Ajzenstat for keeping alive the nomenclature of the ‘British North America Act’ and the ideals it exemplifies.

  2. 2 bad credit loan May 26, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Just enjoying my first can of Stella in nearly a year. It’s easy to forget just how nice some things really are !! One cans already makin it hard to read all these comments properly!

  3. 3 Terry June 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    I wish this was on android… although if it did I would just come up with stuff
    like this all the time and get little done…

  4. 4 web page July 12, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    This brings us to the fundamental question: what is SEO.
    They named such interest as ‘dark tourism’, and suggested other locations included the Nazi-extermination camp of Auschwitz; Cambodia’s ‘killing fields’ and Hiroshima in Japan, site of the atomic bomb of 1945. They should be unique from your overall site description and relate specifically to this article.

  5. 5 Milton April 17, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    I am curious to find out what blog platform you are working with?
    I’m experiencing some minor security problems with my latest website and I’d like to find something more secure.
    Do you have any recommendations?

  6. 6 Furniture August 26, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Wonderful blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of
    any community forums that cover the same topics talked about
    here? I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get comments from other experienced individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.
    Bless you!

  7. 7 jumping stilts online September 19, 2014 at 12:44 am

    Howdy! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog.

    Is it very difficult to set up your own blog?
    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast.

    I’m thinking about making my own but I’m not
    sure where to begin. Do you have any points or suggestions?
    Appreciate it

  8. 8 structured data cabling November 27, 2014 at 9:32 am

    obviously like your web site however you need to
    test the spelling on quite a few of your posts.
    A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I to find it
    very bothersome to tell the truth however I’ll definitely come back again.

  1. 1 Ajzenstat on the BNA Act « Andrew Smith’s Blog Trackback on October 11, 2009 at 1:03 pm
  2. 2 head soccer cheat point Trackback on June 7, 2015 at 8:27 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: