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Never mind Alison Redford: Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner needs to resign

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Doug Horner

If the Parliamentary convention called ministerial responsibility still has meaning in Alberta or Canada, Finance Minister Doug Horner must resign.

Everyone in political Alberta has been focusing on another question: what should happen to former premier Alison Redford in the wake of the many recent revelations about her controversial conduct in office?

This serves a political purpose for those with a partisan axe to grind, but as long as she is not found guilty of a criminal offence -- and as stated in this space yesterday, that is extremely unlikely to happen -- she has in fact already done the right thing in terms of Parliamentary tradition and convention.

That is to say, when it was demonstrated that she and members of her departmental staff had not done their jobs properly, she resigned from cabinet.

If she sticks around or runs for re-election, it is up to the voters -- not the courts or the other members of the Legislature -- to deal with her. Her Progressive Conservative caucus can kick her out if they like, but that is private party business.

Granted, the circumstances of Redford's resignation from cabinet amounted to a palace coup -- or, as it has been termed here, a Sky-Palace coup -- but, nevertheless, she has done the thing that is required of Parliamentary convention, defined here to mean, as my favourite political science textbook puts it, "a constitutional rule based on implicit political agreement and enforced in the political arena rather than by the courts."

So now, despite the interesting puzzle of why she acted as she did, the more important question has to do with Horner, who by all accounts is both an honourable person and a highly capable senior minister.

The trouble is -- as I am sure he well knows -- the convention of ministerial responsibility demands that he now resign from cabinet, although not from his seat in the Legislature.

"According to the doctrine," says that well-thumbed Canadian politics textbook of mine, The Canadian Regime by Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Meyers, "the minister who heads each department must be accountable to the House of Commons (or the provincial Legislature) for the conduct of each and every civil servant working in that department."

And Horner, while not responsible for the appalling and inexplicable behaviour of Redford's Premier’s Office staff, was the minister in charge of the government’s small fleet of aircraft.

As we now know, thanks to the CBC’s unauthorized report of Auditor General Merwan Saher's report on Redford's travel practices, someone made a practice of booking fake passengers on planes on which the premier planned to fly, to keep everyone but Redford's personal staff off the aircraft. (Why they didn't just use the sensible system of priorities that was standard operating procedure under her predecessor, in which premier Ed Stelmach had the ex officio power to bump whomever he pleased, because he was the premier after all, is a mystery.)

While the "ghost riders" scheme, by the sound of the news reports, seems to have originated with Redford's staff, it's hard to see how it could have happened without the collusion of officials under Horner's purview.

Now, this may seem unfair, because it is unlikely that Horner personally knew much about this practice. But, under the ministerial responsibility convention, that does not matter.

"On the most basic level, (ministerial responsibility) means that ministers may be asked in the House to investigate allegations of incompetence or impropriety in their departments and take appropriate measures," explain Professors Malcolmson and Meyers.

"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." (Emphasis added.)

"In more serious cases of mismanagement, this means the minister must resign."

This is undeniably a serious case of mismanagement. Indeed, in the political arena, the fate of the whole PC government may rest upon it.

But in the Legislature, it means the minister must resign.

If Horner won’t resign, Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock has the responsibility to fire him.

This is undoubtedly not the way that Horner would like to end a long and distinguished career in public service. Moreover, if his party is not re-elected, he is not likely to be able just to step back into a cabinet position, as the tradition also permits.

And, no, it's not entirely just. But those are the rules of the game.

If Horner won't do what Parliamentary tradition demands, that too will have an impact on how history views his many accomplishments.

So, unfortunately, Horner needs to resign.


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

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