House of Commons Procedure and Practice
Edited by Robert Marleau and Camille Montpetit
2000 EditionMore information …
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2. Parliaments and Ministries

Duration of a Parliament and a Ministry

The duration of a Parliament — the period of time between elections during which the institution of Parliament exercises its powers — is calculated from the date set for the return of the writs following a general election to its dissolution by the Governor General. [15] At the same time, the Constitution Act provides that, subject to dissolution, five years is the maximum lifespan of the House of Commons between general elections, calculated from the date fixed for the return of the writs, and that there must be a sitting of Parliament at least once every 12 months. [16] 

The Ministry, which exercises the practical functions of government, has no fixed maximum duration. Its duration is measured by the tenure of its Prime Minister and is calculated from the day the Prime Minister takes the oath of office to the day the Prime Minister dies, resigns or is dismissed.

These two time lines — the parliamentary one, which has a maximum duration, and the prime ministerial one, which is open-ended — do not always coincide perfectly.

Duration of Parliaments

About one third of the Parliaments since 1867 have lasted between four and five years, about another third have lasted between three and four years and a final third, less than three years (see Figure 2.1) [17]. Three Parliaments (i.e., the Seventh (1891-96), Seventeenth (1930-35) and Nineteenth (1940-45)) have gone near the limit of the five-year maximum constitutional lifespan, within days of when the House of Commons would have expired by effluxion of time. One Parliament, the Twelfth (1911-17), was extended. [18]  Four Parliaments (i.e., the Fifteenth (1925-26), Twenty-Third (1957-58), Twenty-Fifth (1962-63) and Thirty-First (1979)) have lasted less than one year.

Figure 2.1 – Duration of Parliaments
years months days
1 1867-1872 4 9 8
2 1872-1874 1 3 30
3 1874-1878 4 5 26
4 1878-1882 3 5 27
5 1882-1887 4 5 8
6 1887-1891 3 8 27
7 1891-1896 4 11 29
8 1896-1900 4 2 26
9 1900-1904 3 9 24
10 1904-1908 3 9 2
11 1908-1911 2 7 26
12 * 1911-1917 5 11 29
13 1918-1921 3 7 7
14 1922-1925 3 7 22
15 1925-1926   6 25
16 1926-1930 3 6 28
17 1930-1935 4 11 27
18 1935-1940 4 2 16
19 1940-1945 4 11 30
20 1945-1949 3 8 21
21 1949-1953 3 9 19
22 1953-1957 3 6 4
23 1957-1958   5 24
24 1958-1962 3 11 20
25 1962-1963   6 19
26 1963-1965 2 4  
27 1965-1968 2 4 14
28 1968-1972 4 1 7
29 1972-1974 1 4 9
30 1974-1979 4 7 26
31 1979   6 3
32 1980-1984 4 3 29
33 1984-1988 4   7
34 1988-1993 4 8 19
35 1993-1997 3 5 12
36 1997-      
* Extended by constitutional amendment

Duration of Ministries

Since Confederation, there have been 26 Ministries, although only 20 individuals have served as Prime Minister. A Prime Minister whose party is re-elected in successive general elections simply continues in office as the head of the same government. For example, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who became Prime Minister in 1896, continued in office through the general elections of 1900, 1904 and 1908 before resigning after his party was defeated in the 1911 general election. On the other hand, a Prime Minister who resigns from office following a party defeat in a general election, but who is later returned to power, forms a new Ministry. For example, Pierre E. Trudeau, who first became Prime Minister in 1968 forming the Twentieth Ministry, resigned from office in 1979, only to be re-elected with a majority in 1980, thus again becoming Prime Minister, forming the Twenty-Second Ministry. There can, as well, be several Ministries within the same Parliament. This was the case for the Seventh Parliament. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald died in office not long after being re-elected in 1891. From the time of his death to the 1896 general election, no less than four more administrations took office. Figure 2.2 illustrates the sometimes ephemeral, sometimes lengthy duration of Ministries. [19]

Figure 2.2 – Duration of Ministries
years months days
1 Macdonald 1867-1873 5 4 4
2 Mackenzie 1873-1878 4 11 30
3 Macdonald 1878-1891 12 7 20
4 * Abbott 1891-1892 1 5 8
5 Thompson 1892-1894 2   7
6 * Bowell 1894-1896 1 4 6
7 Tupper 1896   2 7
8 Laurier 1896-1911 15 2 5
9 Borden 1911-1917 6   2
10 Borden ** 1917-1920 2 6 28
11 Meighen 1920-1921 1 5 19
12 King 1921-1926 4 5 30
13 Meighen 1926   2 27
14 King 1926-1930 3 10 13
15 Bennett 1930-1935 5 2 16
16 King 1935-1948 13   23
17 St-Laurent 1948-1957 8 7 6
18 Diefenbaker 1957-1963 5 10 1
19 Pearson 1963-1968 4 11 29
20 Trudeau 1968-1979 11 1 14
21 Clark 1979-1980   8 26
22 Trudeau 1980-1984 4 3 27
23 Turner 1984   2 18
24 Mulroney 1984-1993 8 9 8
25 Campbell 1993   4 10
26 Chrétien 1993-      
* Senator
** Unionist government

The End of a Ministry

The end of a Ministry is triggered by the death, resignation or dismissal of the Prime Minister. [20]  It does not necessarily entail the end of a Parliament. While, on one hand, the operation of the confidence convention can lead and has led to early dissolution of a Parliament, [21]  there are, on the other hand, examples of multiple Ministries during the same Parliament. [22] The procedural consequences of the end of a Ministry vary depending on how the Ministry ends. The procedural effect of dissolution is of course well known: sittings cease immediately and all proceedings in Parliament are quashed. A new Parliament, once summoned, begins with a clean slate. [23]

Death of a Prime Minister

The death of a Prime Minister holds few procedural implications. If death occurs during a session of Parliament while the House is sitting, tributes may be made in the House or the House may adjourn for an extended period. [24]  Since Confederation, only two Prime Ministers have died in office: Sir John A. Macdonald, in 1891, during a session, and Sir John Thompson, in 1894, while Parliament was prorogued. [25] 

Resignation of a Prime Minister

Resignation may be prompted by a defeat in a general election, by the operation of the confidence convention alone, by the operation of the confidence convention followed by a defeat in a general election, or by other reasons, including the Prime Minister’s desire to retire from public life.

•  Defeat in a General Election

If Parliament is dissolved when the Ministry resigns, there are of course no procedural implications. This is typically the case for majority governments which, at a moment of their own choosing, seek a dissolution, are defeated at the polls and subsequently resign in the days that follow. [26] It falls to the new government to meet the new House.

An election may be triggered by the Prime Minister of a minority government, in the same manner as a Prime Minister of a majority government. For example, throughout the Sixteenth Parliament (1926-30), Prime Minister Mackenzie King headed a minority government but was able to retain the support of the third party in the House and thus govern for almost four years. He then sought and obtained a dissolution in the usual manner, was defeated at the polls and resigned.

In an unusual and controversial case, following the general election of 1925, the Mackenzie King government lost its majority status when the Liberals received fewer seats than the former Official Opposition party, the Conservatives. [27]  Nevertheless, it decided to meet the House to test its confidence, and did so successfully until June 1926. For further details of this case, see below.

•  Operation of the Confidence Convention

The role of procedure in the operation of the confidence convention revolves around the decision-making process in the House of Commons. When the government is defeated on a vote on a question of confidence in the House, the Prime Minister must either resign [28]  or seek a dissolution. The Speaker does not decide what constitutes a matter of confidence. Successive Speakers have stated that it is not for the Chair to interfere to prevent debate, or a vote, on a question relating to the issue of confidence, unless the motion being put forward is clearly defective or irregular on procedural grounds. [29]  Naturally, when numbers are close, the procedural implications of pairing and the manner in which a vote is recorded become critically important. The rules and practices governing these areas of parliamentary procedure are discussed in Chapter 12, “The Process of Debate”.

Four governments have been defeated in a vote in the House on a clear, uncontested question of confidence. In 1926, the three-day old Meighen minority government lost a vote (96-95) on what amounted to a motion of censure of the government. [30]  In 1963, the Diefenbaker minority government was defeated by a wide margin (142-111) on a Supply motion. [31]  In 1974, the Trudeau minority government and, in 1979, the Clark minority government both lost a vote on a Budget motion sub-amendment, by votes of 137-123 and 139-133 respectively. [32]  All four Prime Ministers sought and obtained a dissolution following defeat in the House. Of the four governments, the Meighen, Diefenbaker and Clark governments were subsequently defeated in general elections and, in each case, the Prime Minister resigned without meeting the new House. The Trudeau government was returned with a majority and met the new House.

The government of Mackenzie King in 1925-26 faced a more complex set of circumstances and ultimately resigned without a dissolution. The case has been cited by some as one of a resignation due to the operation of the confidence convention, [33]  although Mackenzie King himself stated that he resigned because he did not obtain the dissolution he had sought. [34]  In any case,the events leading to the government’s resignation illustrate that it is not always clear what constitutes a question of confidence.

A general election was held on October 29, 1925. Prior to the election, Prime Minister Mackenzie King held a bare majority of 118 of 235 seats. (The number of seats he held had fluctuated throughout the Fourteenth Parliament, giving him sometimes a majority, sometimes a minority.) [35] The 1925 election returned 101 Liberals (supporters of the King government), 116 Conservatives, 24 Progressives, 2 Labour and 2 Independents. [36] Parliament met on January 7, 1926. The King government did not resign but instead chose to meet the House, despite having received fewer seats than the Conservative Party. It retained the support of the House until June 1926 when the official opposition moved an amendment to a motion to concur in a committee report that amounted to a censure of the government; at that time, the King government was not able to command the support of the House on a series of procedural motions meant to set aside the censure amendment. [37]  Before the censure amendment was ever put to a vote, Prime Minister King announced his resignation to the House on the afternoon of Monday, June 28, 1926. He stated that, having sought and been refused a dissolution, he was resigning. [38]  After the announcement, the House adjourned. The next morning, Arthur Meighen, the Leader of the Opposition, was asked by the Governor General to form a new government. When the House convened later the same day, the government and the official opposition had changed sides in the House and acting House Leader Sir Henry Drayton made a statement announcing changes to the Ministry. [39]  The House then resumed the transaction of its business. Two days later, the Meighen government lost a vote on a motion of censure. [40] 

Not all government defeats on a vote are automatically considered matters of confidence. [41]  On February 19, 1968, a motion for the third reading of a tax bill was defeated by a vote of 82-84. [42]  Prime Minister Pearson did not agree that this defeat constituted an expression of non-confidence in the government, as some were arguing. The government introduced a motion “That this House does not regard its vote on February 19th in connection with third reading of Bill C-193, which had carried in all previous stages, as a vote of non-confidence in the Government”. This motion was carried on February 28 by a vote of 138-119. [43]  From February 20 to February 28, all House business was concerned with the resolution of this matter, and in fact the House transacted no business at all from February 20 to 22. [44] 

Similarly, on December 20, 1983, a clause of a bill amending the Income Tax Act and other acts was defeated in a Committee of the Whole by a vote of 28-67. [45]  The Official Opposition claimed that this constituted a defeat on a question of confidence and demanded that the government resign or seek a dissolution. The government disagreed. [46]  As in other, similar circumstances, this was not a procedural matter upon which the Chair could rule. [47] 

•  Resignation Due to Other Causes

Several Prime Ministers have resigned for reasons other than those referred to above. Most have done so out of a stated desire to retire from public life. [48]  There are, however, a few cases where the departure was prompted by other reasons.

In one case, the government of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald (Second Parliament, 1873), embroiled in a scandal, resigned rather than face near-certain defeat on a no-confidence motion. [49]  According to an eyewitness, on November 5, 1873, “ … Sir John got up and briefly announced that the Government had resigned. The announcement was received in perfect silence. The Opposition, directly [after] it was over, crossed the House to their new desks.” [50]  The Leader of the Opposition, Alexander Mackenzie, formed a new government and Parliament was prorogued on November 7, 1873. On January 2, 1874, he sought and obtained a dissolution without having met the House with a legislative program.

In 1896, the Prime Minister, Senator Sir Mackenzie Bowell, faced a serious Cabinet revolt (seven Ministers resigned) and ultimately resigned himself on April 27 of that year, three days after he had been granted a dissolution. [51]  He was succeeded by Sir Charles Tupper, who in turn resigned after his defeat in the election. [52] 

Dismissal of a Prime Minister

Since Confederation, no Prime Minister has been dismissed. [53]  The circumstances that might give rise to dismissal have nevertheless been the subject of considerable academic debate.

Ministerial Crisis

If the House is sitting when the composition of the Ministry is being changed in circumstances of ministerial crisis, it is normal for the House to adjourn from day to day (unless it decides otherwise) until such time as the changes are complete. [54]  In such cases, the House normally transacts only routine business on the days it meets and questions may be asked concerning the progress being made in reconstituting the Ministry. [55]  When a new Ministry is to be formed following the death, resignation or dismissal of the Prime Minister, it is likewise appropriate for the House to adjourn from day to day (again, unless it decides otherwise), [56]  but no questions may be asked as to the progress being made, there being no Ministry. [57]  However, party leaders may make statements. [58]  When the ministerial crisis is resolved, it is usual for a leading Member of the government caucus to make a statement explaining the ministerial changes to the House. [59] 

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