Responsible government is a conception of a system of government that embodies the principle of parliamentary accountability which is the foundation of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. Governments in Westminster democracies are responsible to Parliament (and more specifically to the lower, more representative house) rather than to the monarch, or, in the colonial context, to the imperial government.
Responsible government and the principle of parliamentary accountability manifests itself in several ways. Ministers must firstly account to Parliament for their policy decisions and for the performance of their departments. This requirement to make announcements and to answer questions in Parliament means that ministers have to be members of either house of Parliament. Secondly, although ministers are officially appointed by the head of state and can theoretically be dismissed at pleasure, they retain office subject to their holding the confidence of the lower house of Parliament. Once the lower house has passed a motion of no confidence in the government, the government must immediately resign or submit itself to the electorate in a new general election.
In Canadian history, responsible government was a major plank of the programme of development towards independence in Canada and other settler colonies in Australia and South Africa. The concept of responsible government is associated in Canada more with self-government than with parliamentary accountability: hence the notion that Newfoundland "gave up responsible government" when it surrendered its dominion status in 1933.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the British government was sensitive to unrest in its remaining colonies with large populations of British colonists. After Louis-Joseph Papineau's abortive Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837 and William Lyon Mackenzie's matching Upper Canada Rebellion, both of which lasted through the next year, Lord Durham was appointed governor general of British North America and given the task of examining the issues and determining how to defuse tensions. In his report, one of his recommendations was that colonies which were sufficiently developed should be granted "responsible government", a term which specifically meant the policy of British-appointed governors bowing to the will of elected colonial assemblies.
The first instance of responsible government in the British Empire was achieved by the colony of Nova Scotia in January–February 1848 through the efforts of Joseph Howe. The plaque in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada reads:
First Responsible Government in the British Empire. The first Executive Council chosen exclusively from the party having a majority in the representative branch of a colonial legislature was formed in Nova Scotia on 2 February 1848. Following a vote of want of confidence in the preceding Council, James Boyle Uniacke, who had moved the resolution, became Attorney General and leader of the Government. Joseph Howe, the long-time campaigner for this "Peaceable Revolution", became Provincial Secretary. Other members of the Council were Hugh Bell, Wm. F. Desbarres, Lawrence O.C. Doyle, Herbert Huntingdon, James McNab, Michael Tobin, and George R. Young.
The colony of New Brunswick soon followed in May 1848 when Lieutenant Governor Edmund Walker Head brought in a more balanced representation of Members of the Legislative Assembly to the Executive Council and ceded more powers to that body.
In the Province of Canada responsible government was put to the test in 1849 when Reformers in the legislature passed the Rebellion Losses Bill, a law that provided compensation to French-Canadians who suffered losses during the Rebellions of 1837-1838 in Lower-Canada. The Governor, Lord Elgin, had serious misgivings about the bill but nonetheless signed it into law in spite of demands from the Tories that he refuse assent. Elgin was physically assaulted by an English-speaking mob for this, and the Montreal Parliament building was burned to the ground in the ensuing riots. Nonetheless, the Rebellion Losses Bill helped entrench responsible government into Canadian politics.
In time, the granting of responsible government became the first step on the road to complete independence. In contrast to the American experience, Canada (for example) gradually gained greater and greater autonomy over a considerable period of time through inter imperial and commonwealth diplomacy, including 1867's British North America Act, 1931's Statute of Westminster, and even as late as the patriation of the British North America Act in 1982 (see Constitution of Canada).
While the various colonies in Australia were either sparsely populated or penal settlements or both, executive power was in the hands of the Governors, who because of the great distance from their superiors in time and space in London, necessarily exercised vast powers. However the early colonials coming mostly from the United Kingdom were familiar with the Westminster system and the efforts to reform it to increase the opportunity for ordinary men to participate. The Governors and London therefore set in motion a gradual process of establishing a Westminster system in the colonies, not so fast as to get ahead of population or economic growth, nor so slow as to lead for clamouring for change.