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.

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10 Responses to “Responsible Government in 1867”


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  1. 1 Ajzenstat on the BNA Act « Andrew Smith’s Blog Trackback on October 11, 2009 at 1:03 pm
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