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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 Canadian House of Commons. As Prime Minister one has the right to the style of Right Honourable, denoting membership of the Privy Council.

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. In fact, 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 Prime Minister may be any Canadian citizen of voting age (18). As for all party leaders, it is not legally required, but customary, for the prime minister to be a sitting member of the House of Commons. 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 the Prime Minister to that 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 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 Prime Minister Louis Saint Laurent in 1951.

A Prime Minister's elected term is for a maximum of 5 years, however he has the power to call an election for every seat in the House (a general election) at any time. By custom, elections are called 3.5 to 5 years after the previous election, when a majority government[?] is in power, 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).

In recent years under Jean Chretien's Liberals there has been a trend towards calling elections in even less than 3.5 years if the government in power believes the conditions are right for another win, but this is considered unfair play in some quarters. 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[?].

In earlier years, it was tradition that the British Monarch bestow a knighthood on any Canadian Prime Minister. As such, several carry the prefix "Sir" before their name. It is now illegal for a Canadian citizen to accept any British title.

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, arugably, the most personal and absolute power of any elected leader of any full democracy in the world.

The power of the Prime Minister of Canada is such that they can, and do, shape the nation in their own image. A large proportion of new legislation is introduced for passage by the Parliament of Canada is the product of the policies and goals of the Prime Minister. With a majority of thier members elected to the House of Commons, the Prime Minister's legislation is almost always passed.

As Prime Minister, and leader of the party with a majority of elected representatives, most new legislation presented to Parliament emanates from the PM's office. This new legislation is referred to as a "Government Bill" and is designated by a number. 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 Member's Bill," it is an infrequent occurrence that one is ever enacted. In the last thirty years, out of the thousands of pieces of legislation passed by the Canadian Parliament, only three Private Member's Bills have ever been passed into law. And, none of these were significant changes to socio/economic matters affecting the country and each of these were dramatically modified in the process. Because of the time, energy, research and other resources needed just to prepare a bill for introduction into Parliament, very few Private Member's Bills are ever undertaken given that they have almost always been dismissed out of hand.

The third source for new bills are other cabinet members. The majority of low level bills come from other members of the cabinet who know more about issues of specific regional or minesterial concern. Much of more importatn bills, such as the budjet, will also be put toghether by cabinet ministers. All the most important legislation usually stems from the PMO, however.

Unlike the Presidental system of government used in such countries as the United States, an elected member of the Canadian House of Commons 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 who has been expelled from their party will then sit as an independent member of Parliament with extremely limited resources to conduct their work and almost no procedural right to ask a question or raise any issue in Parliament. Members 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 Cretein 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 have no party money to fund their re-election campaign. Members who vote against less important legislation jepordize their chances of joining 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 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 Chretien 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 of any kind, the Prime Minister of Canada alone appoints the person(s) 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
  • all members of 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 particiular, 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 the Prime Minister's appointment of someone to the Supreme Court, and the need to abolish or radically restructure the appointed Senate.

A 2001 book titled the "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 Chretein in 2003.

The Prime Minister is also restricted by two usually powerless branches of government. The senate can delay and impeed legislation, as occurred when Brian Mulroney attempted to introduce the Goods and Services Tax[?], or when Chretein tried to cancel the privatization of Pearson Airport[?].

Canada is also one of the most decentrilized 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 List of Canadian Prime Ministers



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