By now almost everyone in Ontario, and probably all of Canada, has heard of the ongoing Greenbelt scandal that has engulfed the Ford government. But the concept of ministerial accountability, which is at the heart of this scandal, has been largely overlooked or misunderstood. The initial criticism from environmentalists and concerned municipalities centered on the government’s decision to remove precious wilderness areas from protection, apparently in order to allow for the construction of more suburban sprawl in the name of the housing shortage. These issues are certainly important, but they pale in comparison with the failure of the Ford government to admit responsibility for a flawed and seemingly corrupt process. Put another way, while the media and many interested observers continued to focus on the issues related to the fate of the Greenbelt and housing, the very real scandal of lack of accountability within the Ford government was somehow still below the radar. [i]
However as time passed and the Ford government remained stubbornly determined to pursue their course of action despite growing public outcry, attention finally focused on the way the process was being administered, and potential wrong-doing involving preferential treatment for several of Ford’s corporate friends. Both the provincial Auditor General and the Ethics Commissioner issued scathing reports, and the whole matter is now the subject of an RCMP investigation.
As a result, the Chief of Staff of the Minister of Housing finally fell on his sword, admitting he was responsible for devising the plan to distribute the spoils to private sector contractors, but adamantly denying any wrongdoing. While some, including Ford, may have felt this would end the matter, it did not satisfy many opposition politicians, or indeed the Auditor General, all of whom pointed out that the Minister of Housing had the ultimate responsibility. If, as the minister claimed, he really was ignorant of the whole process, he clearly had abrogated his duties by allowing his staff to handle such an important file unsupervised. And so, finally, even Doug Ford had to bend to public opinion and his Housing Minister, Steve Clark, had to resign.
On the plus side, this eventual outcome demonstrates that ministerial accountability is not completely dead in the 21st century in Canada. On the negative side, the confused coverage of this issue, to say nothing of the length of time it took the Ford government to acknowledge the importance of this principle, suggest that the concept of ministerial accountability is an endangered species.
Of course the Ford government’s apparent lack of regard or understanding of one of the most fundamental principles of parliamentary democracy is not unprecedented. On the contrary, there have been several serious examples of ministers evading responsibility for their actions at both provincial and federal levels over the past several decades. And their governments’ failures to respect the principle, or to at least explain why it does not apply in a particular case, has undoubtedly contributed to the growing uncertainty about what the principle actually is.
To be clear, the concept of ministerial accountability has definitely evolved over time. This is true in Britain and other parliamentary democracies as well. Originally, ministers routinely were expected to accept responsibility publicly and/or resign for one of two major reasons. While the first and most obvious reason — so clearly demonstrated by the Greenbelt scandal — has not changed, the second has become increasingly opaque over time, and it is here that most of the confusion lies.
The first aspect of ministerial accountability has always been related to personal misconduct on the part of the minister. This would involve such transgressions as conflict of interest, misuse of public funds, abuse of public office for personal gain, deliberately misleading the House or the public, or other personal unethical behaviour, and/or for failure personally to perform their duties. Historically violation of this aspect of the principle has almost always been considered grounds for resignation.
While the British in particular seem to have a longstanding fascination with the personal foibles and ethical missteps of their cabinet ministers, (from Profumo, Fallon and Mandelson to Hancock, Stonehouse and Johnston),[ii] Canada had been relatively free of such scandals until the advent of the Mulroney government in 1984. (Prior to this arguably the most significant publicly-known incident involved Diefenbaker Defence Minister Pierre Sevigny and German prostitute/spy Gerda Munsinger, but even then Diefenbaker did not ask Sevigny to resign.)
During the Mulroney era, however, the number of ministers forced to resign over personal misbehaviour increased dramatically. Within seven years, some eleven Mulroney ministers were forced to resign “for cause”, including conflict of interest, misuse of public funds, election campaign “irregularities”, profiteering and abrogation of duty (for example when Fisheries Minister John Fraser overruled departmental officials and allowed tins of tainted tuna to be sold). This unprecedented number of forced resignations can best be understood by comparison with the 15-year term of prime minster Pierre Trudeau, when three ministers were obliged to resign for cause in a period more than twice as long. Indeed, the cabinet peccadilloes under Mr. Mulroney soon became fodder for the international press, including in the US and the UK.[iii]
And it is this first reason for ministerial resignation, the personal behaviour of the minister, that has finally resulted in the departure of Mr. Clark, in his case for blatant failure to discharge his duties. It is also the reason that SHOULD have resulted in the resignation of PM Trudeau’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng, who ignored ethics guidelines and hired a close personal friend for work in her ministerial office,[iv] and former PM Harper’s International Development Minister Bev Oda, who not only personally altered a cabinet directive after the fact, but misled parliament about this.[v] Rather than resign, both ministers issued apologies or explanations in the House of Commons. Many experts expressed concern that such examples of personal misconduct resulting in a slap on the wrist, although still relatively rare, could set a dangerous new precedent. As former Liberal Deputy Prime Minister Copps said at that time, “What does it take to get fired in this town?” In short, the rationale has not changed but current political culture appears to be more forgiving of such transgressions.[vi]
Meanwhile the second rationale for ministerial accountability has evolved significantly over time. Not surprisingly, then, this is the area where most of the confusion lies. This second rationale requires a minister to accept responsibility for mistakes made by the department of which he or she is in charge. (These would include such problems as perceived inadequacies or incompetence in the administration of programs, or failure to respond to administrative problems in a reasonable or timely manner.) Even though such mistakes are made by the bureaucrats who are actually running the day to day operations of a department, and/or by the bureaucratic system put in place to administer their responsibilities, in principle it has always been the minister who is obliged to take responsibility publicly.
This was true even though only rarely would a minister have been directly involved in overseeing a specific program or project. The minister was the elected politician, and therefore he or she was to be held accountable to the electorate through parliament. Historically, he or she would admit departmental errors in parliament and pledge to rectify them, or, depending on the seriousness of the issue, on occasion resign. (Another important principle of parliamentary democracies, that of bureaucratic anonymity, supported this concept as well. This did not, however, mean that bureaucrats who made mistakes were off the hook, but rather that discipline and correction of flawed processes was handled as an internal departmental matter.)
Since the Second World War the size of government and nature of government activities grew dramatically in all western liberal democracies. This increasingly meant that no one could or would reasonably expect a minister to be aware of all of the activities of his/her department. Over time recognition of that fact meant that apologies in parliament and pledges to “get to the bottom” of a problem became the rule, and resignations became even less common. Only the most egregious failures of a department would be considered a hanging offence for the minister. Instead, ministers most often were expected to acknowledge that a problem existed, explain what had caused it and outline appropriate steps they were taking to remedy it. Unless the issue was of huge political significance, or the problem did not appear to have been adequately addressed in a reasonable time period, most expert observers considered this a realistic accommodation of the accountability principle to modern realities.
Much of the current confusion over the principle of ministerial accountability appears to have been sown by hyperpartisan political attacks by opposition parties, and by media complicity, related to this second rationale. In the era of instant news, social media and the declining fortunes of legacy media, it has never been more true that sensationalism sells. In this context demands for a minister to resign have suddenly and perversely become the norm rather than the exception for the second aspect of accountability, namely the performance of their department. This trend flies in the face of established modern practice and appears to be increasingly the case regardless of the perceived seriousness of the issue, since all issues now appear to be considered “hanging offences” by the opposition. This includes problems that are patently the result of flawed or inadequate internal departmental procedures, and/or issues of which the minister was clearly unaware. In many cases, the opposition argues a minister should have been aware of something, ignoring entirely the size and scope of government departments and activities, standard operating procedures or unanticipated developments caused by events beyond the control of governments. Not surprisingly governments are rarely responsive to these unrealistic demands, leading to greater concern that “ministerial accountability” is dead. Meanwhile actual examples of personal misconduct on the part of a minister are somehow downgraded in importance and lost in the wash of the multitude of calls for resignations. A hidden tragedy in this unfortunate situation is that ministers are increasingly discouraged from providing accurate, detailed explanations of the cause of a problem and the measures being taken to rectify it. Such explanations would provide all Canadians with a better understanding of the intricacies and complexity of modern government operations, but it appears that no one is interested in listening.
[i] For an excellent analysis of the specific details involved, see T. Keller. “The Greenbelt Scandal Isn’t About Housing, It Isn’t Even About the Greenbelt”, Globe and Mail, Sept. 12, 2023.
[iii] Herbert Denton. “Fourth Minister Quits in Canada.” The Washington Post. May 13, 1986. See also https://www.nytimes.com/1985/09/24/world/canada-s-fisheries-minister-resigns-over-tuna-scandal.html
[v] For an excellent summary of this case, see the testimony of Prof Ned Francs before the House of Commons Procedure Committee at https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/40-3/PROC/meeting-51/evidence