REACTION: The Accountability of Leaders - Institute on Governance

REACTION: The Accountability of Leaders

With contribution from Karl Salgo.

If your head is still reeling from the speedy ouster and (interim) replacement of Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole, you’re not alone.

While the Prime Minister may be thankful to the Conservatives for yet another seemingly gratuitous gift, he and the other party leaders are probably also thanking the heavens that such a thing could not happen to them.

The ouster took place under CPC caucus rules arising from the 2014 Reform Act, which received strong all-party support at the time of its enactment and applies to all parties to this day.

Breaking party ranks on a parliamentary vote is a rarity in Canadian politics and there have been multiple proposals to give MPs a greater degree of independence. The Reform Act was an attempt to re-empower individual MPs, who were widely perceived to be groaning under strict party discipline from their respective House Leadership.

In its watered-down final form, the Reform Act required each party caucus in a newly elected Parliament to vote on four questions regarding whether caucus:

(1) determines its own membership, (2) chooses its own chair, (3) can trigger a leadership review, and (4) can choose an interim leader.

The last two were obviously in play in the Conservative caucus this week. It should be noted that the capacity of caucus to oust a leader is not novel in the Westminster system, as Margaret Thatcher knew only too well, and as Boris Johnson presumably knows to his great anxiety.

What’s interesting here in Canada is that, since 2015, only the CPC caucus has given itself these powers.

The Liberal caucus has actually been coy about the votes themselves, citing caucus secrecy, and we can’t be sure that they’ve always been held, legal requirement notwithstanding.

It’s easy to see why leaders might not be crazy about their caucus taking on these kinds of powers, although they haven’t altered voting habits to any discernible degree. But accountability is a core requirement of democratic government, and there’s no such thing as too much accountability, is there?

Or is there?


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The Reform Act was passed in the wake of a significant number of other initiatives in the early 2000s to improve accountability across various fronts, in both the public and private sectors. In the Government of Canada, the most comprehensive was the Federal Accountability Act, which among other things created a host of new laws on the behaviour of public officials, elected or otherwise.

Perhaps the immediate question as we commiserate (or not) with Mr. O’Toole is whether accountability might not require something from those who hold others to account.

Is there not arguably an implied need for those to whom account is rendered to exercise some form of due process, even if it be within the confines of their own judgment? If accountability is to mean anything, should evidence not be weighed equitably, prudently, and without regard to conflicting interests?  

Of course, in politics the electorate is famously always right, and there would be both impracticality and irony in a bottomless cycle of accountability for accountability.

Perhaps there are instances in which we might think twice about adding to the list of accountabilities – as I’m sure Justin Trudeau and Jagmeet Singh would be prepared to tell you.

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