House of Commons
When Canadians think about politics, they’re usually thinking about the affairs of the House of Commons, simply because that’s the body housing so many of the nation’s leading politicians. With the Canadian Senate being a largely ceremonial and powerless institution, it’s the House that truly dominates parliamentary government in Canada.
As we learned in the parliamentary system chapter, the House of Commons has two basic jobs, proposing and voting on legislation, and appointing the Government of Canada. In this chapter, we’ll look at the details of the House a bit more closely, and examine the sorts of people and players who make the institution work.
Members of Parliament (MPs)
The House of Commons consists of 308 elected Members of Parliament, or MPs, each of whom represents a different electoral district, also known as a riding or constituency. These ridings are in turn distributed across the various provinces of Canada according to the principle of representation by population (or “rep-by-pop” for those in a hurry), which means that the larger provinces elect more MPs than the smaller ones. Here’s the exact breakdown, along with party standings:
|PROVINCE / TERRITORY||SEATS||Cons.||NDP||Liberals||Other|
|British Columbia||36||21||12||2||1 Grn.|
|Prince Edward Island||4||1||0||3||0|
- Current party standings in the House of Commons, Parliament of Canada
- House of Commons interactive seating chart, CBC
A riding’s borders are drawn by a non-partisan committee and are usually based on some preexisting geographic area, like a city or town. The riding’s name will usually reflect this pretty clearly, for example, the riding of “Ottawa South” or “Edmonton-Sherwood Park.”
Becoming an MP is rarely anyone’s first step in their political career. Most members get elected only after a successful tenure as a local political figure of some note, such as a city councillor, mayor or member of the provincial parliament or cabinet. In other cases, they may be an accomplished figure in some other field such as business, academics or media. By far, the most popular career background in the House is “lawyer.” MP candidates are usually nominated by a small gathering of political party members in that community known as the riding association, but in some cases the party leader may simply hand-pick candidates his or herself.
Once elected, MPs are divided into two camps: front-benchers and back-benchers. Those on the front bench are picked to be members of the prime minister’s cabinet or the opposition shadow-cabinet, while those in the back are the lowly leftovers. Every MP aspires to be a member of cabinet someday, whereas being a backbencher is synonymous with obscurity, and a sign that your career is headed to nowheresville.
After a federal election, the party that elects the most members to the House of Commons forms the government and its leader becomes the Prime Minister of Canada. The new prime minister then selects a couple dozen of his favourite MPs to become cabinet ministers in his administration.
Each cabinet minister heads a department of the Canadian federal government. Since Canada has one of the biggest cabinets in the western world, there are an awful lot of these, and they vary greatly in size and importance. At the top of the spectrum are the departments of finance, justice, defence and foreign affairs, that handle some of the nation’s most important affairs, while at the bottom end are departments like amateur sport that rarely enter the headlines. Throughout the course of a cabinet minister’s political career, he or she will likely switch departments many times (these are known as cabinet shuffles); it’s a sign that you’re really going places if every shuffle brings you higher up the ladder, while a demotion can be quite an embarrassing setback.
Though one of the best ways to get a good job in the cabinet is to be a close friend or confidant of the prime minister, in recent decades a lot of cabinet positions are doled out according to the more politically-correct principle that the cabinet should accurately reflect the “face of Canada” and include MPs from all races, genders, and regions of the country. The fact that many cabinet ministers are chosen more for optics than qualifications has helped weaken the cabinet’s power in recent years. As discussed in more detail in the bureaucracy chapter, many cabinet departments are now effectively run by the civil service, while the minister is a bit of a hands-off figurehead.
Below the cabinet are the House committees, which are special groups of MPs that gather to discuss and modify the bills that are introduced into the House before they go to a final vote. Right now, there are about 25 different House committees in all, each one specializing in a particular realm of policy; for example, the House Committee on International Trade or the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Most committees have about 12 members, who are appointed by the various party leaders in proportion to their standing in the House as a whole, so the majority party gets to appoint the most members of every committee, as well as the committee chairman. In order to promote separation of powers, cabinet ministers are rarely members of committees, though a committee will rarely draft legislation that the relevant minister wouldn’t agree with.
So far, we’ve only discussed what happens on the Government side of the House. But at any given moment, about half of the House of Commons is filled by MPs of opposition parties, too. What are they up to?
The political party with the second-most seats in the House is known as the Official Opposition, and its leader is given the grandiose title of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The Opposition organizes itself more or less the same way as the Government, complete with a shadow cabinet of MPs called critics who offer targeted criticisms of their ministerial counterparts. So, for example, it’s the job of the opposition finance critic to offer specific criticism of the Government’s fiscal policies, and so on. In theory, this is done to demonstrate that the Opposition is just as qualified to rule as the Government, and helps keep their criticism focused and organized.
In one of Parliament’s more sensational spectacles, four times a week both the cabinet and Opposition face off in a televised sparring match known as Question Period. During Question Period, ministers and critics ask each other pointed, angry questions in an attempt to illustrate just how wicked and dangerous the other party is, while the back benchers yell, jeer and applaud. At one time, this was a somewhat legitimate way for politicians to hold each other accountable for the TV cameras, but these days it’s almost universally acknowledged that Question Period is largely just for show, and a way for politicians to engage in the sort of theatrical partisan bickering that impresses the base and makes for good sound bytes on the nightly news.
Third and fourth place parties in the House enjoy few rights and a generally low profile. Though their members may occasionally speak in Question Period, they will almost certainly be less organized and forceful, due to their low seat count. They may or may not chose to organize themselves into a shadow cabinet too, but it will have far less official importance.
Amid all the tension and turmoil between the Government and the Opposition, someone needs to keep order in the House. That man is the Speaker of the House, who serves as the moderator of the chamber and occupies one of the most respected offices of Parliament.
Like cabinet ministers, Speakers are MPs, but unlike cabinet ministers, they are elected by a majority vote of the assembled House, and serve as long as that particular session of Parliament lasts, usually four or five years. In theory, the office is non-partisan, but politics being what it is, Speakers are always chosen from whatever party holds the majority.
In office, the Speaker’s main job is to serve as the neutral chair of any parliamentary debate or vote, calling on MPs when it is their turn to speak, scolding or disciplining those who speak out of order, declaring motions to have passed or failed, and generally enforcing the parliamentary rules of order necessary to make House business unfold in a smooth and organized manner.
Though he’s usually a member of the Government caucus, the Speaker is not supposed to be involved in anything to do with actual policy or lawmaking, and has his own office and staff that are separate from that of the cabinet.
Links About The House of Commons:
- Compendium of House rules and procedures, Parliament of Canada
- Organized database of House of Commons and MP information, Parliament of Canada
- Video archive of past Question Period sessions, Canadian Public Affairs Channel