To Resign or Not to Resign

2 minute read

Canadians emerged from a highly sequestered holiday season to learn that many of their elected officials – a mix of federal and provincial parliamentarians, parliamentary secretaries, critics, and ministers – had for various reasons not considered themselves as place-bound as their fellow citizens. Most of these office holders have since apologized (at least after a fashion) and some have resigned from their positions.

Several of these individuals were ministers of the Crown, who didn’t all respond the same way. How does their behaviour align with the doctrine of ministerial responsibility?

There is no objective standard for ministerial resignation. In formal terms, ministers serve at the pleasure of the Governor in Council (i.e., the Governor General or Lieutenant Governor acting on the advice of Cabinet), which in practice means they serve at the discretion of the prime minister (or premier) who may ask for their resignation at any time. Courts have confirmed that this is not an employment relationship and enjoys no security of tenure or procedural constraints.

Ministerial responsibility does not mean that ministers must resign whenever something goes wrong in their portfolios: there is a difference between responsibility and blame. In very broad terms, ministers need to show due diligence in managing their portfolios. The history of ministerial resignations for administrative wrongdoing in Canada is very thin.

Ministers also share in the collective responsibility of Cabinet, which implies the possible need to resign if they can’t publicly abide by Cabinet policies or confidentiality. That usually relates to policy disagreements, but what about behaviour that is unethical, or simply embarrassing?

Unless the minister is personally hell-bent on resignation, this is a matter for a judgement call by the premier, which helps to explain why Ontario’s Minister of Finance resigned while Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs remains in office. The PM/premier may decide that a given minister’s conduct is not helpful to the government, as when it generates bad press and detracts from its credibility or perceived integrity – especially conduct that runs counter to stated government behavioral standards. In such cases the minister may be “asked” for his or her resignation.

In short, if the PM judges that the public's anger (or the PM's own) won't blow over soon enough, the minister is likely to be exiled for at least the time being.

What if a minister refused to politely resign you ask? We’re not aware of such a scenario off the top of our heads, but it wouldn’t be much of a problem given that a minister’s tenure automatically ends when the GG/LG appoints a new minister to the job.

About the author

Karl Salgo

Karl Salgo

Executive Director - Public Governance

As Executive Director of Public Governance, Karl provides advisory services to multiple levels of government (provincial, federal and international) on all aspects of public sector governance, including institutional capacity, the center of government, organizational design and effectiveness, accountability, oversight, and risk management. He also plays a lead role in the IOG's research initiatives, including the work of the Public Governance Exchange, a syndicated, multi-jurisdictional forum for developing and exchanging ideas on public sector governance. Additionally, Karl provides educational services to public servants and appointees on a broad range of subjects, ranging from policy development and MC preparation to political savvy and the operations of government, to the responsibilities of directors in a wide range of public institutions.

A career public servant, Karl has degrees in political science, history and law from the University of Toronto and in public administration from the Queen’s University School of Policy Studies. He worked for many years in the federal Department of Finance, in areas as diverse as tax policy, communications and financial markets. In the latter capacity, Karl helped to establish the governance framework for the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and later served as Chief of Capital Markets Policy.

From 2004 to 2012, Karl worked in the Privy Council Office’s Machinery of Government Secretariat, where he provided advice to the Clerk of the Privy Council and the Prime Minister on the organization and structure of the Government of Canada – the Cabinet, portfolios, and the creation, winding-up and governance of individual organizations.

As Director of Strategic Policy from 2007 to 2012, Karl was the secretariat’s lead authority on Crown corporation governance, the conventions of the Westminster system, and the conduct standards applicable to ministers and other senior public office holders. Karl was the author/editor of numerous PCO publications, including Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State and Guidance for Deputy Ministers. Actively involved in realizing the myriad governance and accountability changes that flowed from the Federal Accountability Act, Karl played a lead role in the design and implementation of the accounting officer mechanism of deputy minister accountability.

LinkedIn613-562-0090 ext. 239