The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Responsible government

Responsible government is a system of government that embodies the principle of parliamentary accountability which is the foundation of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. Governments in Westminster democracies are responsible to Parliament (and more specifically to the lower, popularly-representative, house) rather than to the monarch, or, in the colonial context, to the imperial government.

Responsible government and the principle of parliamentary accountability, manifests itself in several ways. Ministers must firstly account to Parliament for their policy decisions and for the performance of their departments. This requirement to make announcements and to answer questions in Parliament means that ministers have to be members of either house of Parliament.

Secondly, although ministers are officially appointed by the head of state and can theoretically be dismissed at pleasure, they retain office subject to their holding the confidence of the lower house of Parliament. Once the lower house has passed a motion of no confidence in the government, the government must immediately resign or submit itself to the electorate in a new general election.

British North America : Canada

In Canadian history, responsible government was a major plank of the programme of development towards independence in Canada and other settler colonies in Australasia and South Africa. The concept of responsible government is associated in Canada more with self-government than with parliamentary accountability: hence the notion that Newfoundland "gave up responsible government" when it surrendered its dominion status, even though it continued to have a democratic government in the Westminster tradition.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the British government was sensitive to unrest in its remaining colonies with large populations of British colonists. After William Lyon Mackenzie's abortive Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837 and Louis-Joseph Papineau's matching Patriotes Rebellion in Lower Canada that lasted through the next year, Lord Durham was appointed governor general of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and given the task of examing the issues and determining how to defuse tensions. In his report, one of his recommendations was that colonies which were sufficiently developed should be granted "responsible government", a term which specifically meant the policy of British-appointed governors bowing to the will of elected colonial assemblies.

The first instance of responsible government in the British Empire was achieved by the colony of Nova Scotia in January-February 1848 through the efforts of Joseph Howe. In the Province of Canada responsible government was put to the test in 1849 when Reformers in the legislature passed the Rebellion Losses Bill, a law that provided compensation to French-Canadians who suffered losses in the 1837-38 rebellions. Many English-Canadians were outraged and saw the bill as compensation to traitors. The Governor, Lord Elgin, had serious misgivings about the bill, but nonetheless signed it into law in spite of demands from the Tories that he refuse assent. Elgin was physically assaulted by an English-speaking mob for this, and the Montreal Parliament building was burned to the ground in the ensuing riots. Nonetheless, the Rebellion Losses Bill helped entrench responsible government into Canadian politics.

In time, the granting of responsible government became the first step on the road to complete independence. In contrast to the American experience, Canada (for example) gradually gained greater and greater autonomy over a considerable period of time through inter imperial and commonwealth diplomacy, including 1867's British North America Act, 1931's Statute of Westminster, and even as late as the patriation of the British North America Act in 1982 (see Constitution of Canada).

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