Friday, August 17, 2012

Understanding CAN government: Prime Minister Powers

Canadian Parliament Building
Powers of the Prime Minister:
  1. To appoint the Governor General of Canada (through whom the PM technically exercises most of his/her powers, some of which are listed below);
  2. To appoint Senators to the Canadian Senate;
  3. To appoint Supreme Court justices and other federal justices;
  4. To appoint all members of the Cabinet; [to remove any member of the Cabinet]
  5. To appoint the entire board of the Bank of Canada;
  6. To appoint the heads of the military, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and other government agencies;
  7. To appoint CEO's and Chairs of crown corporations such as CBC;
  8. To dissolve Parliament and choose the time of the next federal election (within a 5 year limit);
  9. To run for re-election indefinitely (no term limits);
  10. To remove Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling party's caucus;
  11. To deny any MP the right to participate in parliamentary debate or run for re-election;
  12. To dismiss individuals or groups of representatives from serving in Parliament;
  13. To ratify treaties; and
  14. To declare war;
  15. To determine Canadian federal laws including election law within the constraints of the Canadian Constitution and Charter and contingent on passage in the Parliament (Source: Canadian Federal System ).
The Canadian Governor General, who the Prime Minister appoints, determine ceremonially who is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not legally required to be elected to the Canadian Parliament. Although based on the Canadian Constitution, the Prime Minister must conform to the eligibility requirements for persons wishing to run for federal office: citizen of Canada, and at least 18 years of age. [1]

Generally, the Prime Minister is the chosen leader of the party with the majority of the parliament or minority control of the parliament. 

Checks on the Prime Minister: 

1. Canadian electorate vote every four to five years. However, the Prime Minister through the majority of the Parliament determine the Canadian federal election laws, and therefore through legislated electoral unfairness for example, the Prime Minister can reduce the influence of the electorate. For example, public subsidies to only parties with a seat in the Parliament favors larger, more established parties. Also, first-past-the-post, the current way to determine federal election winners, allows parties to form a majority of the Canadian Parliament without representing at least an absolute majority of the voting public. This is particularly problematic when factoring in the powers of the Prime Minister, and it is inconsistent with the concept of government of, by, and for the people. In addition, the Prime Minister's power to determine when elections occur may influence the outcome of elections.

2. Canadian Supreme Court. However, the Prime Minister appoints the Canadian Supreme Court Justices. These appointments become more problematic the longer the Prime Minister remains in office. As mentioned, the Prime Minister has no term limits.

3. The Parliament through a vote of no confidence can remove the Prime Minister. This vote could be initiated by a cabinet revolt against the Prime Minister. However, the Canadian Parliament has strict party discipline, so this vote is highly unlikely if the Prime Minister has a majority of the Parliament.

4. Canadian Senate can delay or impede legislation. However, the Prime Minister appoints the members of the unelected Senate. These appointments become more problematic the longer the Prime Minister remains in office.

5. Canadian Governor General powers to hold the Prime Minister accountable to the Queen and people have evolved into a ceremonial role similar to the King of Norway. Also, the Prime Minister appoints the unelected Governor General, and therefore it follows that the Prime Minister can remove the Governor General.

6. Freedom of Expression. However, freedom of expression can be marginalized and/or diluted by the corporate media for instance. Also, freedom of expression in of itself does not necessarily lead to result.

7. Civil suits. However, these are costly, and they do not deal with the possibility of a partisan Canadian Supreme Court.


It is unclear how a person with so much political power is not elected directly by the people. Can the Canadian Westminster Parliamentary system be considered democratic? Is the role of the Canadian Prime Minister a dictator?

In contrast, in France for example, the President is elected directly by the people and must meet a threshold of absolute majority or face a run-off election of the two most popular candidates.

In the United States, the U.S. President and Vice-President are elected by the Electoral College: a small group of electors selected by the state legislatures. Although the U.S. President appoints members of the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. President unlike the Canadian Prime Minister, is limited to a maximum of two terms. Therefore, the U.S. President's influence on the U.S. Supreme Court is limited and subject to the retirement of Supreme Court justices. In addition, the U.S. Congress has constitutional authority over federal legislation, and therefore, this bicameral elected body acts as a check on the powers of the U.S. President. 

[1] The prime minister, along with the other ministers in cabinet, is appointed by the governor general on behalf of the Queen. However, by the conventions of responsible government, designed to maintain administrative stability, the viceroy will call to form a government the individual most likely to receive the support, or confidence, of a majority of the directly-elected House of Commons; as a practical matter, this is often the leader of a party whose members form a majority, or a very large plurality, of Members of Parliament (MPs). Legally, this may be any citizen of Canada of voting age (18 years and over)—the requirements to gain election to the House of Commons. It is not actually clear as to whether there are age or citizenship restrictions on the position of prime minister itself, as it is not necessary for the incumbent to be a sitting MP. However, this is more of an academic question since the constitutional conventions involved in selecting the prime minister make the appointment of anyone ineligible for election to the house an obvious infeasibility. (Source: Qualifications and Section )

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