To Resign or Not to Resign - Institute on Governance

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.

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