The Canadian Parliamentary System
A legacy of the country’s colonial past, Canada’s government is based on the British parliamentary system, a democratic model of government adapted from centuries of English tradition.
Canada’s national Parliament, housed in an enormous neo-Gothic building in the capital city of Ottawa, is a bicameral legislature, meaning it’s split into two chambers: the House of Commons and the Senate. Here’s the quick summary:
|THE HOUSE OF COMMONS||THE SENATE|
|- 338 members||- 105 senators|
|- all members elected at the same time, every three to four years, in a Canadian federal election||- senators appointed by the prime minister of Canada whenever vacancies occur|
|- no term limits, members can be re-elected indefinitely||- senators serve until retirement or age 75, cannot be fired|
As we can see, the House of Commons consists of 308 elected politicians, while the Senate consists of 105 “qualified citizens” appointed by the prime minister. The Senate is fairly ceremonial and inconsequential (more on this later), so when most Canadians refer to “Parliament” they are usually referring to just the House.
Members of the House of Commons are known as “Members of Parliament,” or more commonly, just “MPs.” Members of the Senate are predictably called “Senators.” The Prime Minister of Canada and his cabinet are all sitting MPs.
The purpose of the Canadian parliament is twofold: passing legislation and choosing the government.
Where would Canada be without legislation! Lawless anarchy, that’s where!
Most Canadian laws get their start in the House of Commons, where they are proposed as bills by a member of the prime minister’s cabinet. After an initial vote to consider, specialized House committees will debate the details of a proposed bill before sending it back to the full House for further votes of approval. After that, the bill goes to the Senate, where it is usually quickly approved, and then to the Governor General, who ceremonially signs it into law (known as giving “royal assent“).
Generally speaking, the Canadian legislative process is not very closely followed by the Canadian media or Canadians themselves. Due to strong party discipline (see below) and the fact that the prime minister and cabinet effectively control which bills are introduced and passed, much more focus is given to the government’s legislative ideas than particular votes in the House or Senate.
So-called “party discipline” is one of the most defining characteristics of the Canadian system of government — indeed, it’s very hard to understand the system at all unless you grasp this concept. Essentially, party discipline means that all MPs of a particular political party are expected to all vote the same way, all of the time. So if there’s a bill introduced in the House on say, gun control, all the members of the Conservative Party will either vote unanimously for it, or unanimously against it. A recent study found even the most “rebellious” MP in parliament still voted unanimously with his party 99% of the time.
This is largely because political party leadership in Canada is very centralized. Every party has a single “leader,” and that leader gets to decide how all his party’s members in Parliament will vote on various issues. He may consult with his members before deciding, but the decision is ultimately his. Severe punishments can result if an MP dares to vote against, or in some cases even speak against, his leader. He can be expelled from the party caucus (the officially recognized group of members) and forced to sit as an independent, his speaking privileges in parliament can be temporarily revoked, or he can even be banned from running under the party label in the next election. Some academic observers have said that Canada’s party discipline is the most extreme of any western democracy.
What all this means is that individual MPs and senators don’t have a lot of independence in the Canadian system. Crueler commentators have likened them to “trained seals” who simply do what they are told with little dissent. This has also helped make MPs relatively inconspicuous figures who are not given a lot of media coverage outside of election time. Especially if they’re a member of the majority party, their day-to-day views on legislation simply aren’t that relevant, since their votes will always be highly predictable.
Choosing the Government
Along with passing laws, the main function of the Canadian parliament is choosing the government of Canada. The House of Commons is thus a legislative body and an electoral college all in one!
In the language of the Canadian parliamentary system, “the Government” (note impressive capitalization) refers to the political party in the House of Commons with the largest amount of seats. For example, you’ll often hear references to things like “a Government MP” or a “Government bill.” Things related to the non-government parties are usually prefixed with the adjective “Opposition.”
After the results of a parliamentary election come in, the governor general ceremonially appoints the leader of the party with the most seats in the House as prime minister, and the prime minister then “forms a government.” In practice, “forming a government” means picking a cabinet, which the prime minister does by appointing other high-profile MPs from his party caucus to key positions in the executive branch, as well as various senior staffers and advisers in the federal bureaucracy.
The second-largest political party in the House is appointed as the Official Opposition, or, if we want to use the grandiose, formal name, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The leader of the second-largest party is given the title of Leader of the Opposition and he appoints a “shadow cabinet” of politicians from his own party to offer targeted criticism to the Government of the day. This is discussed in more detail in the House of Commons chapter.
Minority or Majority?
Depending on how the results of an election go, Canada can either have a majority or minority government. A majority government is one where the largest party controls a majority of seats in the House of Commons, which is what happens most of the time. Canada’s current government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (b. 1971) is a majority government, since his party, the Liberal Party of Canada, controls over 50 per cent of the seats in the House.
Sometimes, however, if there is a strong third party presence in the House, no one party will be able to hold a solid majority and the overall division of seats will be more even. In such cases, the party with the largest plurality forms the Government. This is known as a minority government, since the Government MPs will be formally outnumbered by the combined total of opposition MPs.
It’s theoretically possible that two smaller parties could unify to form a majority in the House, which would then allow them to form the Government. This is known as a multi-party coalition government and it’s all the rage in Europe, where their parliaments are usually very divided among many small parties. In Canada, however, the coalition government idea is quite controversial, and has never been successfully attempted. Canada has a strong tradition of letting the plurality rule even if that plurality is very narrow. Anything else would be akin to a “coalition of losers,” as some wags have put it. It’s not entirely clear who would be the prime minister or how the cabinet would be appointed in a coalition government.
During the years between 2004 and 2011, Canada had a lot of minority government-related drama. There were three back-to-back minority government terms in a row during that period, allowing for constant speculation about the possible emergence of a coalition government or, as we’re about to learn about, a non-confidence vote.
The Canadian parliamentary system is said to enshrine the idea of “responsible government” as one of its key principles. This not only means that the Government is responsible to the people, but that the politicians who run the Government are responsible to the entire House of Commons as a whole, even the opposition parties. If the House of Commons “loses confidence” in the Government, then that Government is said to have lost its democratic mandate to remain in office.
That’s the grand theory; here’s how it works in practice. At any time, any member of the House of Commons can introduce a proposal known as a confidence motion that declares something to the effect of: “be it resolved this House no longer has confidence in the present Government of Canada.” If that bill passes, the House has ruled “no confidence” in the Government, and the Government must call an emergency parliamentary election, and win it, in order to remain in office.
Successful no-confidence votes only come in a minority government situation, of course, since passing a no-confidence vote, like any other vote, requires the approval of a majority of MPs to pass. There does not have to be a significant scandal or controversy to justify launching a no-confidence vote against a sitting government; it’s largely a strategic decision made by opposition parties to force an election at a time when they believe their chances of being elected are highest.
Indeed, when a minority government is elected, it essentially becomes a question of “when, not if” the opposition parties will choose to take the Government down. Most minority governments don’t last longer than two years.
The Role of the Senate
You may notice that I’ve never really mentioned the Canadian Senate in any of the above descriptions. This is because the Senate is a mostly inconsequential body in day-to-day Canadian government. It plays no role whatsoever in the forming of governments or confidence votes, and is instead a mostly ceremonial body involved in formally approving legislation before it can become law. Many have actually called for the outright abolition of the Senate, for reasons that are discussed in more detail in the Senate chapter.