The Canadian Parliamentary system

Introduction

Canada is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, founded on the rule of law and respect for rights and freedoms. The government acts in the name of the Crown but derives its authority from the Canadian people.

Canada’s parliamentary system stems from the British, or “Westminster”, tradition. Parliament consists of the Crown, the Senate, and the House of Commons, and laws are enacted once they are agreed to by all three parts. Since Canada is a federal state, responsibility for lawmaking is shared among one federal, ten provincial and three territorial governments. The judiciary is responsible for the interpretation and application of the law and the Constitution and for giving impartial judgments.

The Canadian Constitution

Canada’s Constitution sets forth the system of fundamental laws and principles that outline the nature, functions, and limits of Canada’s system of government, both federal and provincial. It prescribes which powers—legislative, executive and judicial—may be exercised by which level of government, and it sets limits on those powers. It also lays out the powers and authorities of the office of the Governor General, as well as those of the Senate and the House of Commons.

The Constitution involves more than a single document. The Constitution Act, 1867 brought Canada into being with a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom. The Constitution Act, 1982 contains the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the procedure for amending the Constitution. Some of Canada’s most important rules are not matters of law but are conventions or practices.

  • The Crown
    Head of State represented in Canada by the Governor General
    • Executive Branch
      Government
      • Prime Minister and Cabinet
    • Legislative Branch
      (Parliament)
      • Senate
        Upper Chamber appointed by Governor General 105 seats regional representation
      • House of Commons
        Lower Chamber elected 338 seats popular representation

The Crown and the Governor General

In Canada, executive authority is formally vested in the Crown (the Sovereign), and it is exercised in its name by the Governor General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister and the cabinet. The Constitution reserves certain prerogatives of government for the Crown, including the powers to:

  • give royal recommendation to bills that propose to spend government revenues;
  • give royal assent to bill passed by the Senate and the House of Commons so that they become law;
  • appoint holders of many important offices (e.g., judicial and diplomatic);
  • dissolve Parliament before elections, and to open and close parliamentary sessions (at the beginning of each parliamentary session, the Governor General reads the Speech from the Throne, prepared by the Prime Minister, outlining the Government’s objectives for the upcoming session); and
  • choose the Prime Minister (by convention, the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons following a general election).

The Governor General is appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the Prime Minister for a tenure of usually five years which may be extended at the discretion of the Sovereign. As the Sovereign’s representative, the Governor General is the Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces, performs several ceremonial functions, and represents Canada in state visits and in other international events.

The Legislative Branch (Parliament):

Parliament is Canada’s legislature, the federal institution with the power to make laws, to raise taxes, and to authorize government spending. The Parliament of Canada is “bicameral”, meaning it has two chambers: The Senate and the House of Commons.

Proposed government legislation is introduced in one of the two chambers, usually the House of Commons, by a minister. Bills calling for the spending of public revenues or for the imposing of taxes must originate in the House of Commons. Once introduced, a bill is subjected to a detailed process of review, debate, examination and amendment through both Houses before it is ready to receive final approval. The House of Commons also considers items of “Private Members’ Business”, that is, bills and motions proposed by members who are not cabinet ministers.

To become law, all legislation must be adopted by both Houses in identical form and receive royal assent.

The Senate

The Senate, or upper House, is composed of 105 Senators appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister—subsequent to a recommendation by the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments—to represent Canada’s regions, provinces and territories. Once appointed, Senators may continue to serve until mandatory retirement at the age of 75. The Speaker of the Senate is appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister.

The House of Commons

The House of Commons, or lower House, is the elected assembly of the Parliament of Canada. Its members are elected by Canadians to represent defined electoral districts or constituencies, also known as ridings. There are currently 338 seats in the House of Commons.

A government formed by the party or the coalition of parties holding most seats in the House of Commons is known as a majority government. When the party in power holds more seats than any other party but falls short of a clear majority in the House, the government is referred to as a minority government. Minority governments must rely on the support of members belonging to other political parties to govern.

The Executive Branch

In Canada, executive authority is vested in the Crown and carried out by the Governor in Council—the Prime Minister and cabinet.

Once appointed, the Prime Minister selects a number of confidential advisers, usually from among the elected members of Parliament belonging to the governing party, who are made members of the Privy Council and then sworn in as ministers. Collectively, they are known as the ministry or cabinet and are each responsible for individual portfolios or departments, usually assisted by other members of Parliament who have been appointed as parliamentary secretaries.

Cabinet is the key decision-making forum in the Canadian government. It leads and directs the executive branch of government. Cabinet acts as an executive council that develops policies to govern the country and introduces bills to transform these policies into law.

Responsible Government and Ministerial Responsibility

Our parliamentary system requires that the government be responsive to its citizens and that it operates responsibly. Cabinet ministers are individually responsible to Parliament for the exercise of their powers as heads of their departments and are also collectively accountable for all decisions of cabinet—such as setting or changing the direction of domestic and foreign policies or programs, proposing new legislation or changes to existing legislation, authorizing the signing of a treaty or the deployment of Canadian forces to a conflict zone—and for carrying out the policies established by it.

Opposition members, both in the House and in committees, work to hold the government—through cabinet—publicly accountable for its decisions.

The Confidence Convention

By constitutional convention, the Prime Minister and the cabinet can continue to exercise authority only with the consent and approval of the majority of the members of the House of Commons. This provision is referred to as the confidence convention.

If the government is defeated in the House of Commons on a confidence question, the Prime Minister is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament so that a general election be held.

As the confidence convention is an unwritten parliamentary practice, it is not always clear what constitutes a question of confidence. Motions that clearly state that the House of Commons has lost confidence in the government, motions concerning the government’s budgetary policy, motions for the granting of supply, motions in relation to the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne, and motions the government clearly identifies as questions of confidence are usually recognized as such.

Political Parties in Canada

Political parties are organizations that bring together a group of people committed to a particular approach to governing and who pursue shared goals bases on a common vision. This approach is expressed through policies. Parties seek political power to be able to implement their policies.

Most members of Parliament belong to a political party. Members of the House of Commons belonging to the same political party, normally together with their counterparts in the Senate, are collectively referred to as that party’s parliamentary caucus. Members may also be independent of any party affiliation.

According to the Parliament of Canada Act, a political party must have at least 12 elected members to be a “recognized party” in the House of Commons. Recognized parties receive additional financial allowances and are entitled to funding for their research groups.

Role of Opposition Parties in Canada

Public debate on proposed legislation, on public policy and on the conduct of the executive is essential to the work of Parliament. Opposition parties lead and focus on the representative and watchdog functions performed by members of Parliament. They work to ensure that legislation is carefully considered, and that differing views on important initiatives are publicly expressed and defended.

By convention, the party with the second-largest number of seats in the House is designated as the official opposition. The leader of that party, if he or she is an elected member of the House, becomes the Leader of the Opposition, and enjoys special procedural considerations, such as unlimited time to participate in certain debates, the right to ask the first question during the daily question period, and being recognized in debate immediately after the minister who speaks first on behalf of the government when government bills or motions are introduced. By law, the Leader of the Opposition must be consulted before certain important decisions and appointments are made by the government.

The leaders of recognized opposition parties usually sit in the front row of the chamber. They are the first members of their parties to be given the floor should they rise to ask a question during question period.

The Standing Orders of the House of Commons provide opportunities for recognized opposition parties to respond to ministers’ statements, to propose motions on allotted or opposition days, and to chair certain standing committees. Opportunities to participate in debate of bills and motions, to make statements and to ask questions during question period are distributed in proportion to the number of members each party has in the House.

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