Members of the House of Commons are elected to represent Canadians living in defined electoral districts or constituencies (also known as “ridings”) throughout the country. The Constitution sets the maximum length of a Parliament at five years; however, recent changes to the Canada Elections Act provide for fixed-date elections every four years.
There are currently 338 seats in the House of Commons. The total number of seats in the House has changed over time, as have the boundaries of the constituencies, in order to reflect changes in the Canadian population.
Would-be Members of Parliament stand for election on the basis of what they (and their parties) propose to accomplish for their constituents and for the country as a whole. In order to accomplish their goals, Members usually belong to political parties that vote together in the House, each of which shares a common philosophy and “platform” of specific proposals for governing.
Members can also run and be elected as “Independents” who are not affiliated with a political party.
The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the political party with the greatest number of seats in the House of Commons. He or she is also a Member of Parliament, representing a particular constituency. When the party in power holds more seats than any other party but falls short of a clear majority in the House, it must rely on the support of Members belonging to other political parties in order to govern; in such a case, the Government is referred to as a minority government.
The Prime Minister and his Cabinet can continue in office only as long as they enjoy enough support in the House of Commons to allow them to enact laws and gain approval for government spending.
The Government is accountable to the House of Commons for the ways in which it uses its authority. It must therefore operate in a responsible manner to enjoy the support of the House and be able to enact laws and authorize expenditures without which the Government could neither function nor achieve its goals. The idea of “responsible government” is one of the foundations of our parliamentary system, even though it does not appear in Canada’s written constitutional documents.
The primary function of the House of Commons is to consider and approve legislation. The opposition (those Members who do not belong to the governing party) is given the opportunity to question what the Government does with legislation and how it conducts itself. The House also considers items of “Private Members’ Business”, bills and motions proposed by Members who are not Cabinet Ministers. However, the opportunities to debate such matters are limited, and passage of private Members’ bills into law is not a common occurrence.
Most bills are considered by committees of the House of Commons as part of the legislative process. In committee, Members are able to have some influence on the form and content of legislation. Members of Parliament also devote time and effort to helping individual constituents and to addressing needs specific to their own ridings.
To a large extent, the House of Commons controls and administers its own affairs. Its ability to modify its own rules and practices to meet the changing needs of Canadians contributes greatly to its effectiveness as Parliament’s key legislative institution.