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PPGPortal > Home > Concept Dictionary > R > Responsible Government

Responsible Government 

A regime in which legislative and executive power are fused together in a cabinet which is accountable to an assembly of the people's elected representatives.

(Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers. 2005. The Canadian Regime: An Introduction to Parliamentary Government in Canada 3rd ed. Peterborough: Broadview Press, p.53)


The principle of responsible government is central to the Canadian political system.

In the Westminster system such as Canada's, powers may be distributed on a unitary or federal basis, but their exercise is governed by the common principle of responsible government. In Canada, the fundamental rule that drives the system of responsible government is the requirement that the government has the support of the majority of elected MPs in the House of Commons. This is the “confidence convention.” Every other rule is a logical derivation from it or must conform to it.

The following statements describe the basics of responsible government in Canada:

• the Crown appoints as Prime Minister the political leader able to form a government that commands the confidence of a majority of the elected members of the House of Commons;

• the formal powers vested in the Crown under the written constitution are exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister alone or the Prime Minister and collectivity of Ministers that is the government (or Cabinet), which functions legally as the active committee of the Privy Council that aids and advises the Crown;

• the Ministers, individually and collectively, are continually responsible to the House of Commons, which in turn holds them to account; and

• a government that loses the confidence of a majority of members of the House either resigns, so that a new government can be formed according to the preferences of the majority of MPs, or advises the Governor General to call a general election.”

Source: (Aucoin and Dinsdale, 2004) . Responsible government: Clarifying essentials, dispelling myths and exploring change. Canadian Centre for Management Development. p. 21.

Responsible government is a means by which those who exercise power are held to account. Coupled with the progress of the 19th and 20th centuries to universal suffrage as the basis for parliamentary authority, responsible government is now the linkage between the power of the state and the ultimate subordination of that power to the principles of democracy. Responsible government, rooted in the democratic institution of Parliament is therefore the mainspring of the Constitution. It follows that the power of the state should be exercised in accordance with the essential requirements of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary accountability.

And what are those requirements? Put succinctly, ministerial responsibility means (first) that ministers must be answerable to Parliament for the way in which the powers assigned through statute are being used. This applies to all forms of government organization. Note the deliberate use of the word “answerable” rather than “accountable”. Equally succinctly, the requirement of parliamentary accountability means (second) that Parliament must have the means to hold to account those on whom it has conferred the powers of the state, be they ministers or non-elected officials. If these two requirements can be met, one may be satisfied that the power of the state is being exercised constitutionally. As is evident, the terms are not interchangeable: being "answerable" ensures that Parliament is informed of the way in which the power of the state is being used; being "accountable" ensures that those on whom Parliament confers the powers of the state account for their actions.

Legislation is the key to understanding ministerial responsibility and parliamentary accountability: this is how the power of the state is assigned to office-holders. Legislation tells us who is responsible, who is answerable, and who is accountable. The power of legislation is limited only by the Constitution and in fundamental statements of principle such as those contained in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the preamble to the Constitution Act. Legislation identifies the powers of the state necessary to fulfil the objects of a statute, and it assigns those powers to office-holders. That assignment is the essential underpinning of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary accountability.


Aucoin, P., Smith, J. & Dinsdale, G. (2004). Responsible government: Clarifying essentials, dispelling myths and exploring change. Canadian Centre for Management Development.


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School of Public Policy and Governance