Thursday, April 05, 2012

Resign! Or not...

I got rather frustrated yesterday by series of articles reporting on Liberal leader Bob Rae's demand that Stephen Harper resign over the F-35 issue. My frustration wasn't specifically aimed at Rae or the Liberal party, but more broadly at our political culture where the first instinct of all of our opposition parties, federal and provincial, whenever the government does anything they strongly disagree with, is to demand the resignation of the relevant minister and/or the Premier or Prime Minister. I overstate my case slightly here for emphasis, but it often seems that not a week goes by when some minister or another isn't being called on to resign. This isn't to say that sometimes ministers - or even governments - do not resign, but it's pretty darned rare. This has set my mind to wondering how often a resignation actually does occur, and what circumstances prompt it.

In case anyone really wonders about my own thought processes, my first personal memory of a demand for a ministerial resignation was as a 12-year old budding news junkie in 1989. The scandal in question involved federal finance minister Michael Wilson. Wilson, the opposition parties charged, had leaked the entire federal budget to the media a day before it was scheduled for release. Did Wilson resign? Heck no! He'd stay in that portfolio for two more years, and in Cabinet until he retired from politics.

Yesterday evening, I put out a call on Twitter for examples of successful calls for ministerial resignations. I could think of Sheila Copps, who resigned both from Cabinet as Deputy PM and her seat in 1996 when her party failed to abolish the GST. She ran in a by-election, won again, and was promptly re-appointed to her old position. Were there others? Alfonso Gagliano, the key minister implicated in the sponsorship scandal, was defended by Jean Chretien for a while, and then eventually appointed ambassador to Denmark.

A grad student in my department, Mark Sholdice, helpfully provided the following list of ministerial resignations from the past 15 years or so: Maxime Bernier, Helena Guergis, Lawrence MacAulay, Andy Scott, Judy Sgro, Art Eggleton. It's interesting to do a bit of dissection of these cases. In most of them, there were pending allegations of influence peddling or conflict of interest. Another involved a potential breach of national security. And what were the ultimate results of these resignations? Both Bernier and Scott eventually found their way back into Cabinet. Eggleton was appointed to the Senate. Sgro and MacAulay have since been re-elected a number of times. Poor Helena Guergis, denied a soft landing...

If we go back far enough, there have been major changes wrought by demands for ministerial or governmental resignations. In 1935-36, when Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale - as a newly formed opposition party - were able to seize control of Quebec's Public Accounts Committee, they were able to expose massive corruption by the Taschereau government, then tie up the legislature and force the resignation of the government. The Pacific Scandal of 1873 (coupled with the arrival of new MPs from PEI) forced the resignation of the government of John A. MacDonald. This isn't really my area of major research interest, but it strikes me that there could be a really interesting book written about ministerial resignations and political scandals in Canada. My working hypothesis is that there were usually pending criminal charges or obvious corruption and influence peddling before ministers actually gave in to opposition pressures to resign. Minor rule-breaking or past dalliances (see: Andre Boisclair's cocaine habit) probably don't cut it most of the time.

All of which leads back to my original frustration. My concern is that if ministerial resignations are in fact quite rare, and almost always linked to allegations of abuse of power or corruption, then is an excessive use of the political tool of demanding a ministerial resignation (with the accompanying media coverage) desensitizing voters? Will we hit a point where there are cases where a minister really should resign because of criminal activity or abuse of power, but the public is so inured to these calls for resignation over more minor issues that a major case can be swept easily under the rug by a Prime Minister who wants to keep that minister (bearing in mind that sometimes a PM might accept the resignation because they simply don't care to bother defending them)? Could we argue that this has already occurred?

When politics devolves into routine theatre and constant braying for attention, I fear that the public tunes out. And given the current state of voter engagement, that should be a huge concern for us all.

ETA: As a matter of curiosity, I'd welcome other examples of successful demands for ministerial resignations, and the nature of the scandal that prompted the demands.

Thanks to Andrew Ross, a link to the Parliament of Canada's official list of ministerial resignations. I might have to go searching for provincial equivalents.

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At 10:41 am, Blogger JAR said...

The bigger issue is the evolution of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, by which it is understood the the minister could be forced to resign on principle when his dept screwed up. This doesn't seem to have been the reason for most resignations, but there are several examples over the years. Another reason for resignation on principle is ministerial disagreement with government policy, of which Michael Chong is the most recent example. See:

At 10:45 am, Blogger Matt said...

What a handy list! I am always impressed at the new gems I find on the Parliament of Canada's website.


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