rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

(Prime) ministerial responsibility and all that … surely the wrong man has quit!

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Stephen Harper

Surely the wrong man has quit!

Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff, resigned yesterday in the imbroglio that followed the revelation he gave disgraced Senator Mike Duffy $90,172 to pay back the Parliamentary expenses the supposed representative for Prince Edward Island in the Upper House had improperly claimed.

The purpose of the controversial payment, obviously, was to make the political problem created by the discovery of Senator Duffy's unethical behavior disappear.

But the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, surely, requires that the prime minister himself must go.

Calm down, people! Your blogger recognizes this is not very likely. Harper, his cabinet, and significant portions of his Reform Party caucus, which does business under the name of the Conservative Party of Canada, hold Parliament, Parliamentary tradition, Parliamentary conventions, and Parliamentary democracy itself in contempt. This has been well understood since 2011.

Nevertheless, the doctrine of ministerial responsibility itself is quite clear.

"According to the doctrine," says my favourite Canadian politics textbook, "the minister who heads each department must be accountable to the House of Commons for the conduct of each and every civil servant working in that department."

"On the most basic level, this means that ministers may be asked in the House to investigate allegations of incompetence or impropriety in their departments and take appropriate measures," explain authors Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Meyers in The Canadian Regime.

"If the incompetence or impropriety is substantial and may be attributed to poor management, however, the stakes become much higher," they write. "Under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility the minister must take personal responsibility for major problems of mismanagement.

"In more serious cases of mismanagement, this means the minister must resign." (In every case, the italics were added by me.)

Now, there can be no doubt that Harper is the minister responsible for the Prime Minister's Office.

It is true that the employees of the modern institutionalized Canadian PMO are partisan political appointees outside the rules of the Public Service of Canada. Nevertheless, they are public employees paid by the taxpayers of Canada through the budget of the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's government department. So it can be persuasively argued that under the ministerial responsibility doctrine their behaviour is the clear responsibility of the PM.

Moreover, the mismanagement in the case of Wright's outrageous payment to Senator Duffy is of the most egregious kind, carried out by the prime minister's closest aide.

So the prime minister's alleged lack of knowledge, much emphasized by Conservative Party spokespeople and the media, is no excuse.

As the Wikipedia's excellent and accurate entry on ministerial responsibility explains, "the minister is responsible even if the minister had no knowledge of the actions."

In other words, it changes nothing if we take Prime Minister Harper at his word that he knew nothing of the actions planned and perpetrated by his closest advisor.

Wright may "accept sole responsibility" if he wishes, but under the doctrines of our Parliamentary democracy and the practicalities of real political life, the responsibility is not his alone, whether or not he or his erstwhile boss like it.

Nor is the prime minister's statement that "I accept that Nigel believed he was acting in the public interest, but I understand the decision he has taken to resign" good enough, notwithstanding his fatuous addition of the standard Conservative Party talking points that "securing jobs and economic growth for Canada … is the focus of all our efforts and attention."

Well, obviously not! Unless, of course, we are talking about jobs and economic growth for Tory insiders.

"A minister is ultimately responsible for all actions by a ministry because, even without knowledge of an infraction by subordinates, the minister approved the hiring and continued employment of those civil servants," states the Wikipedia's entry. Well, this is most certainly true in the case of Harper, who personally chose and hired Wright as his chief of staff.

Even if we accept the view that the most senior civil servants may be called before Parliament, bypassing their minister, Wright is simply too high in the food chain for such treatment.

Yet so far, unsurprisingly, not only has Harper refused to take personal responsibility in this case, he appears to be denying that he has any responsibility at all.

Nevertheless, his public acceptance of Wright's resignation, ipso facto, acknowledges the responsibility is his.

Ergo, it is the prime minister that should resign.

Don't hold your breath.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.