The Prime Minister of Canada, the head of the Canadian government, is usually 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.
Qualifications and selection
The Prime Minister may be any Canadian citizen of voting age (18 years). It is customary for the prime minister to also be a sitting member of the House of Commons and able to speak French and English. If the prime minister 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 leader of the governing party 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. For example, John Turner was briefly Prime Minister in 1984 without being a member of the House of Commons; he would ironically win his seat in the general election that swept him from power. 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 (of the first 8 Prime Ministers, only Alexander Mackenzie refused knighthood). Since the Nickle Resolution, it is against policy for the sovereign to grant titles to Canadians.
A Prime Minister does not a have a fixed term: he is required to resign only if his government does not have the confidence of the House of Commons soon after a general election. An election for every seat in the Commons (a general election) is called at most 5 years after the previous one; however, the prime minister has the power to call a general election at virtually 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 second-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 office of Prime Minister of Canada is not mentioned in the Canadian Constitution, save for a recently added clause mandating meetings with the provincial premiers. In modern-day Canada, however, his prerogatives are largely the duties to which the constitution refers to as the job of the Governor General (who is a figurehead). 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 the United Kingdom. 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.
The Prime Minister plays a prominent role in most legislation passed by the Canadian Parliament. Most Canadian legislation originates in the cabinet of Canada, which is a body appointed by the Prime Minister largely from the ranks of his party's MPs. The Cabinet must have "unanimous" consent on all decisions they make, but in practice whether or not unanimity has been achieved is decided by the Prime Minister.
Such 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 government legislation. 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. Often, though, popular private members' bills are adopted by the government and become part of a government bill.
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 follows 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 party caucus has the exclusive authority to expel that person from the party. A Member of Parliament (MP) who has been expelled from the 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. 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.
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 the Liberal party as "trained seals." As well he once referred to oppositioin backbenchers as "nobodies when they are 50 yards away from the House of Commons." It should be noted that he made the "trained seals" comment prior to joining the Liberal Party. 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. One of the main benefits of the Canadian system is thus that things can be done quickly, and it is easy to see who is accountable for government actions. However, critics likewise allege that such power is far too concentrated, and that the Canadian system lacks the checks and balances present in mixed systems like the US.
In addition, the Prime Minister of Canada has virtual control over the appointment of the people to fill the following positions:
- all members of the Cabinet, and may replace them at at any time;
- vacant seats on the Supreme Court of Canada;
- vacant seats in the Senate;
- 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 head of 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.
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 some checks on the Prime Minister's power. Cabinet or caucus revolts will bring down a sitting Prime Minister quickly, and even the threat of caucus revolts can force a Prime Minister 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. In both cases, however it should be noted that the conflicts arose primarily because the Senate was still dominated by members appointed by the previous administration. Both PMs ended up "stacking" the senate in their favor with a flurry of senate appointments in order to pass their legislation.
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.
Former Prime Ministers
There are five living former Prime Ministers of Canada. In order from most recent they are:
None currently hold a seat in parliament. Joe Clark and Jean Chrétien both left the House in 2004.