Prime Minister of Canada

The Prime Minister of Canada, the head of the Canadian government, is the leader of the political party with the most seats in the Canadian House of Commons. The Prime Minister has the right to the style of Right Honourable. The current prime minister is the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin


Paul Martin
Current Prime Minister
(2003-)

Table of contents
1 Qualifications and selection
2 Term
3 Role and Authority
4 Too much power?
5 See also

Qualifications and selection

The Prime Minister may be any Canadian citizen of voting age (18). It is customary for all party leaders to also be sitting members of the House of Commons. If the a leader should fail to win his or her seat, a junior MP in a safe seat would typically resign to permit a by-election to elect that leader to a seat. However, if the party leader is changed shortly before an election is due and the new leader is not a Member of Parliament, he or she will normally await the general election before running for a seat. John Turner was briefly Prime Minister in 1984, for example, without being a member of the House of Commons. The official residence of the Prime Minister is 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, Ontario. All Prime Ministers have lived there since Louis St. Laurent in 1951.

In earlier years, it was tradition that the Sovereign bestow a knighthood on each new Canadian Prime Minister. As such, several carry the prefix "Sir" before their name. Since the Nickle Resolution, it is against policy for the Sovereign to grant titles to Canadians.

Term

A Prime Minister does not a have a fixed term: he is required to resign only if another party obtains a majority in the House of Commons. An election for every seat in the Commons (a general election) is held at most 5 years after the previous one; however, the prime minister has the power to call a general election at any time. Customarily, when a majority government is in power, elections are called 3.5 to 5 years after the previous election or as a de facto referendum if a major issue is at hand (the last of these being the 1988 election, which revolved around free trade with the United States).

If a minority government is in power, a vote of non confidence in the House of Commons may lead to a quick election (9 months in the case of the most recent Canadian minority government, the Clark government of 1979-1980).

In contrast to the British government, in which Members of Parliament have long tenure but Prime Ministers have relatively short tenures, the Canadian Prime Minister typically has a long tenure except in cases where there is a minority government.

Role and Authority

Since the Prime Minister is in practice the most powerful member of the Canadian government, he or she is sometimes erroneously referred to as the head of state. The Canadian head of state is Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, who is represented by the Governor-General of Canada. The prime minister is the head of government.

The function, duties, responsibilities, and powers of the Prime Minister of Canada were established at the time the country was created as an independent nation in 1867 and were modeled upon those of the existing office of the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Over time, the role of the Prime Minister of Canada has undergone some modifications but today has, arguably, the most personal and absolute power of any elected leader of any full democracy in the world.


Pierre Trudeau
14th and 16th Prime Minister
(1968-1984)

As Prime Minister, and leader of the party with a majority of elected representatives (assuming a majority government), most new legislation presented to Parliament emanates from the PM's office (PMO). This new legislation is referred to as a "Government Bill" and is designated by a number (such as C-18). The members of the governing party in Parliament, elected to represent their constituents, will usually vote in favour of any legislation presented under the authority of the Prime Minister. Once passed by the majority vote of the members of the Prime Minister's party in the House of Commons, the legislation will then almost always be passed by the unelected Canadian Senate.

Although any elected member of the House of Commons may introduce new legislation of their own, referred to as a "Private Members' Bill," it is an infrequent occurrence that one is ever enacted. In the 37th Parliament 2nd Session, of the 471 Private Members' bills tabled, only four received royal assent (although some others were passed by the House of Commons). None of these were significant changes to socio/economic matters affecting the country and each of these were dramatically modified in the process. Private Member's Bills require considerable amount of time, energy, research and other resources needed just to prepare a bill for introduction into Parliament. However, few of these receive the time and Government support needed to pass them.

Too much power?

Unlike the Presidential system of government used in countries such as the United States, an elected member of the Canadian House of Commons must follow strict party discipline and has difficulty voting against the party line. If any elected member of the Prime Minister's governing party votes against any new legislation, the Prime Minister has the exclusive authority to expel that person from the party. A Member of Parliament (MP) who has been expelled from their party will then sit as an independent MP with extremely limited resources to conduct their work and almost no procedural right to ask a question or raise any issue in Parliament. MPs are only expelled from a party for voting against important legislation, such as the budget. This happened to Liberal MP John Nunziata who was expelled by Jean Chrétien for voting against the 1995 budget. At the next election, the expelled member will usually not be allowed to run for the party again. They may run as an independent candidate but they will not receive money from the party to fund their re-election campaign. Members who vote against less important legislation jeopardize their chances of joining/remaining in the Cabinet, or chairing committees. A far more common form or protest, that rarely has serious repercussions is abstaining from a vote. Members of the governing party almost always “toe the party line,” guaranteeing that the will of the Prime Minister of Canada is carried out.


Brian Mulroney
18th Prime Minister
(1984-1993)

Former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, who more than any previous Prime Minister consolidated power in the PMO (Prime Minister's Office), once derisively referred to federal backbenchers in his own Liberal party as "trained seals" and "nobodies when they are 50 yards away from the House of Commons." In 1998, during a break at a G7 summit meeting, the microphone of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was left open and he was heard to complain that President Bill Clinton of the United States was basically powerless to solve international problems (in this case a Pacific coast salmon fishing dispute between Canada and the U.S.) because the American President had no authority and had to answer to Congress. This is one of the main benefits of the Canadian system: things can be done quickly, and it is very easy to see who is accountable for government actions.

In addition, and without approval or review by any other person or political body, the Prime Minister of Canada alone controls the appointment of the people to fill the following positions:

  • all members of his/her Cabinet who he/she may replace at any time;
  • all justices of the Supreme Court of Canada
  • vacant seats in the Senate;
  • all Chairpersons of all Parliamentary Committees; (until November 5, 2002)
  • all heads of Canadian Crown Corporations whom the Prime Minister may replace at any time;
  • all executive positions such as the head of the Canadian Safety Transportation Board, the president of the Federal Business Development Bank;
  • all Ambassadors to Foreign Countries
  • the Governor-General of Canada
  • plus approximately 3,100 other powerful government positions, the bulk of which the Prime Minister usually designates a member of his staff to appoint with his concurrence.

As well, the Prime Minister appoints the person to head the Office of the Ethics Counsellor whose job is to monitor and when necessary, to investigate, the ethical conduct of the members of Parliament including the Prime Minister to whom the Ethics Counsellor reports.

In recent times, a few Canadians and some members of Parliament have begun to question the powers the Canadian Constitution confers on the Prime Minister. In particular, their goal is to find ways to change the insignificant and ineffectual role of elected members of the House of Commons, to create a Parliamentary committee to review appointments to the Supreme Court, and the need to abolish or radically restructure the appointed Senate.


Jean Chrétien
20th Prime Minister
(1993-2003)

A 2001 book titled "The Friendly Dictatorship" by the Globe and Mail newspaper's respected national affairs columnist, Jeffrey Simpson, pointed out the potential dangers by detailing what he argues to be near absolute power vested in the Prime Minister of Canada.

There are still, however, a great many checks on the Prime Minister's power. Cabinet or caucus revolts will bring down a sitting Prime Minister very quickly, even the threat of caucus revolts forces Prime Ministers out of office as happened to Chrétien in 2003.

The Prime Minister is also restricted by the usually powerless Senate. The Senate can delay and impede legislation, as occurred when Brian Mulroney attempted to introduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and when Chrétien tried to cancel the privatization of Pearson Airport.

Canada is one of the most decentralized of the world's federations and provincial premiers have a great deal of power. They need to agree to any constitutional change, and must also be consulted for any new initiatives in their areas of responsibility, which include many important sectors such as health care and education.

See also


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