Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Yesterday, while reading Mr. Attorney: The Attorney General for Ontario in Court, Cabinet and Legislature, by Paul Romney, I came across this passage outlining the concept of cabinet responsibility :

The modern attorney general, like any other cabinet minister, assumes two kinds of responsibility to the people of Ontario: a collective responsibility for all cabinet decisions, and an individual responsibility for the conscientious and effective performance of his departmental duties. Should he find himself in conscientious disagreement with his cabinet colleagues on a matter of policy, or if he should fail in a serious way to execute the duties especially pertaining to his office, it is constitutionally requisite that he express that responsibility by resigning his office.
With the resignation of MP Sgro we are seeing an example of the individual responsibility of which Romney writes. However, it is the collective responsibility that I wish to emphasize here.

I have made this point before (however I can't find the link) but the members of Cabinet are required, within the customs of responsible government, to vote with the ministry. The cabinet collectively forms the executive. If a cabinet member opposses a policy of the ministry, the time to show that opposition is in the cabinet room. Once the cabinet reaches a policy decision it must be united in that decision. If a particular cabinet member continues to oppose that policy, the proper thing for he or she to do is resign.

I make this point because with issues like gay marriage and marijuana decriminalization on the horizon for a minority parliament we are likely to see some free votes in the future. Of course a 'free vote' cannot apply to the cabinet. As Romney points out, cabinet members by definition cannot simultaneosly oppose the ministry and maintian their position in that ministry under a system of responsible government.

So, all of this is a pre-emptive response to all those members of the punditry or even opposition parties who would rise in righteous indignation claiming that a 'free vote' is not really 'free' if the Cabinet is forced to vote with the government. Such an argument is ridiculous. The cabinet is the government; it can't vote against itself. Not if it wants to stay in power anyway.

Posted by Matthew @ 7:26 p.m.