3 min

Whatever happened to ministerial responsibility?

The sharks could smell blood in the water. Natural Resources Minister, Lisa Raitt, was in the House, in her usual spot. That was the first clue as to the fallout over the revelation that she – or her aide – had left secret documents in a briefing binder at a CTV studio in Ottawa. And with the Prime Minister out in Québec City to make a funding announcement, Raitt was left to fend for herself.

Ignatieff was quick to ask about the incident, and Raitt stood up and told the House that said that it was a serious matter, the procedures laid out were not followed, and the person responsible for the documents offered her resignation – which Raitt accepted. Raitt said she did offer her resignation as well, but the Prime Minister did not accept it.

And she proceeded to repeat this answer in one shape or another throughout the rest of Question Period.

It was during Ignatieff’s second question that one Liberal shouted the obvious question across the aisle before deputy whip shushed her (as he was doing a lot of).

“What about ministerial responsibility?”

Indeed, what of it? In this case, Raitt did the honourable thing and offered her resignation. That it was her 26 year-old press secretary that fell on her sword is part of the problem. (Both Raitt and the soon-to-be-former staffer are pictured here, arriving that fateful morning). With the increasing size and complexity of government departments, coupled with the rise of the “court government” phenomenon, where it’s the PMO that runs everything – especially in the government-of-one that we’re currently living through – the concept of ministerial responsibility has become so watered down as to be virtually non-existent. And that’s not a good thing.

It used to be that the trade-off was that ministers got the credit for the hard work of civil servants in their department and their staffers, but in exchange they took the fall so as to protect the independence of the civil service and to ensure responsibility. But it doesn’t work that way any longer. The argument has become that ministerial responsibility was all well and good when one had a department of 20 and could read all of the correspondence in a day, but with departments in the hundreds – if not thousands – that is simply not feasible, and therefore they also shouldn’t have to be as responsible for the conduct and actions of those many civil servants as though this was the era of a century-and-a-half ago.

But this is complicated by the very fact that in the current edition of “Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State,” it says very clearly that Ministers are accountable for the security of their staff and offices. (The NDP staffers were gleefully handing out photocopies of those pages with the relevant passages highlighted after Question Period). As well, Maxime Bernier was ostensibly sacked for the very same reason. Of course, the real chatter is that Bernier was incompetent, but Harper simply needed an excuse to fire him (as you will recall, he will never admit to making a mistake or error in judgement). But good luck trying to get them to admit that in public.

There are still unanswered questions, many of which carry over from the Bernier affair. Why did it take so long to realise these documents were missing? Why was there no tracking system for these documents? Why are secret documents being treated so laxly, especially given that the treatment of these cabinet confidences are part of a Minister’s oath? This is twice now that this has happened – perhaps it’s a sign of a larger problem.

Sartorially speaking, I will give Raitt snaps for her red dress with the horizontal ruching, under the black sweater – it worked for her. And no doubt, looking pretty good helped her keep her poise under constant assault. Also deserving of snaps was Kirsty Duncan for her blue-panelled jacket. Not so good was Lois Brown’s tied green scarf, which only served to make her look like she was trying to hide an Adam’s apple. And the Megan Leslie outfit watch reports a rather unattractive Pepto-Bismol pink top with sleeves that were cropped too high for her shape and an unflatteringly tight collar.

Elsewhere, CSIS is getting a new chief spy—err, director, in the form of long-time bureaucrat Richard Fadden. But as much as he’s getting plaudits, a Federal Court judge is asking if we can trust our spies in this country – especially after it was revealed that they withheld damaging information about an informant in the case against a terrorism suspect. It raises some serious questions about the integrity of these processes, and the oversight of our security and intelligence services. It’s certainly something for the new director to look into.