This list gives brief definitions of terms used to describe parliamentary government Canada. Some of the terms are included because they help to explain the overall system of government; others provide more specific information on the parliamentary process.
This glossary can be used in conjunction with the book by David C Docherty, Legislatures, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005).
An adversarial political system is one dominated by a struggle for power between two rival party groupings. Under such a system, politics is seen as highly competitive with little room for compromise. Actions by the governing party are always opposed by rival parties. See also consensus; majoritarian.
This term is can be used as an abbreviation for legislative assembly, the representative body which voters in each province elect as their provincial parliament. More generally, it can refer to an elected body which forms part of the legislature, or to any group which claims to represent a political community.
In British derived parliamentary systems, the members of parliament who are ministers sit in the front row of the seats or benches assigned to the governing party in parliament. As a consequence, those who sit on the backbenches are members of the governing party who are not ministers. These members are known collectively as the backbench. The opposition backbench are those members of the opposition party who are not senior members of the party or do not hold a position as shadow minister or parliamentary spokesperson for a particular area of policy for the opposition party.
Ballots are the papers on which votes are recorded. A vote can be a single mark, or one or more marks or numbers to elect one or more candidates or parties (see electoral formula). The term ballot can also be used to refer to the process of casting votes or the holding of an election.
A bicameral parliament is one which has two chambers, a lower house and an upper house. The lower house is often called the legislative assembly or house of assembly and, in parliamentary systems, is the house where the government is formed. The Canadian parliament is bicameral with the non-elected Senate as the upper house, the House of Commons as the lower house.
British Columbia has always had a unicameral parliament, with its single chamber known as the legislative assembly. Some provinces joined confederation with upper houses but all of these have since been abolished, the last being Quebec’s Legislative Council in 1968.
A bill is a proposal for a new or amended law brought before parliament. The introduction of a bill is usually controlled by a minister on behalf of the government, but time may be made available for private members to introduce their own bills. Only the government can introduce bills for raising or spending funds (money bills).
Bills must go through a number of stages before they are passed by parliament; for the national parliament, a bill must pass both the House of Commons and the Senate before it can be given the royal assent and become law.
The cabinet is a meeting of the prime minister or premier and the ministers who together make key decisions about government administration and policy. Decisions made by cabinet bind all members of the ministry, and public disagreement with a cabinet decision by a minister will require the resignation or dismissal of the minister.
Even though the cabinet plays a central role in the operation of parliamentary government, the responsibilities and operation of the cabinet are not written down in any formal constitutional document. When the cabinet makes decisions which require formal recognition, they are made in the name of the Privy Council (for the Canadian government) and the Executive Council (for the provinces). See also constitution; government.
A candidate is someone who runs for office at an election. The rules for being nominated as a candidate vary for each parliament in Canada and are usually set out in an Elections Act. These acts prescribe the administrative and financial requirements for candidates and their official agents. See Elections Act (Canada) and Election Act (British Columbia).
The rules governing candidates for the House of Commons are extensive and Elections Canada provides An Election Handbook for Candidates for federal elections. This is available online at:
Almost all successful candidates are members of political parties and parties themselves have procedures for choosing candidates. The process of nominating candidates is a vital one for a political party; by choosing a candidate, it permits that candidate to use the party label and to contest the election in the name of the party. See also nomination; party discipline.
A casual vacancy is the technical term used for a vacancy in the membership of the House of Commons or a legislative assembly which occurs between general elections. Such vacancies can occur because of the death, resignation or disqualification of a member of the legislative assembly. Such vacancies are filled by holding a by-election.
Caucus is a meeting of the members of parliament who belong to a particular party (as in, the Liberal caucus, the NDP caucus). Meetings of caucus—which are usually held in private—may discuss a wide range of topics of concern to party members, including the policies to be followed by the party and parliamentary tactics. Caucus meetings are an important forum for the exchange of information between the party leaders, ministers (if the party is in government), and the backbench. In the past, voting at a meeting of the party caucus was used in Canada as a common way of choosing the party leader. Today, leaders are usually chosen at a party convention, or by direct ballot of all party members.
A coalition is a group of two or more parties which agree to work together to form a government. A coalition government is one supported in the parliament by two or more parties which share the various portfolios in the government. That is, the ministers in a coalition government are drawn from the parties which form the coalition and not just one party.
Parties may indicate before an election that they intend to work together if they win office, or coalition agreements may be formed after the election when it is clear that no single party has a majority of seats. See also majority government.
Coalition governments have not been common in Canada although they are familiar in other parliamentary systems.
The difference between a coalition government which holds a majority of seats in the lower house of a parliament and a minority government kept in office by the support of one or more parties or groups of independents in the lower house is that, in a coalition government, the parties in the coalition have ministers in the government. In a minority government, the parties or independent members keeping the government in office do not have ministers in the government.
The formal authority given to someone to hold a senior position in government is called a commission. For the government of Canada, a commission can be issued by the governor general alone or with the privy council (for the provinces, a commission can be issued by the lieutenant governor alone or by the lieutenant governor in council). Ministers, senior public servants and judges are all issued commissions when they are appointed; see order in council.
When the party in government is defeated at an election, or loses the support of a majority of members in the parliament, the governor general (or lieutenant governor) invites the leader of the party which has the support of a majority of members to form a new government by offering to commission the leader as prime minister (or premier). Once other ministers have been chosen by the prime minister (or premier), they are given commissions for their departmental responsibilities, sometimes called portfolios.
Parliaments often delegate some of their deliberations or inquiries to committees. There are many kinds of committees, some of which continue from one parliament to the next (standing committees), and others which are set up for particular purposes. The composition of parliamentary committees usually reflects the composition of the chamber from which they are drawn; the governing party usually has a majority and selects the chair.
An extensive and well-resourced committee system has often been seen as enhancing the ability of parliament to scrutinize the legislative and financial programs of the government, and to enhance public involvement in the parliamentary process. But the design of the committee system, its funding and operation are matters usually controlled by the government of the day.
A government must maintain the ‘confidence’ of the lower house of parliament; this means that the government relies on the support of a majority of members in the House of Commons or a provincial assembly to stay in office. A ‘loss of confidence’ means that a government has lost control of a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament and must resign or call a general election.
What amounts to a loss of confidence is not always clear, but the defeat of a government’s budget, or the loss of a vote on the address in reply will automatically signal a loss of confidence.
In contrast to a majoritarian or adversarial system, a consensus system aims to disperse power among a number of political institutions, actors and parties so that government policy requires compromise and the accommodation of a range of views before action can be taken. Consensus systems do not regard bare majority support as sufficient to legitimize government action—broader support is required so that as many groups as possible can be persuaded of the merits of the action. Electoral systems with proportional representation are seen as consensus systems because they are more likely to produce coalition governments and the need for parties to compromise over their policies.
A constitution is a set of rules which describes the key institutions of government—particularly the composition of the legislature and the executive— and specifies the procedures which government institutions must follow if their actions are to be authoritative. A constitution can be thought of as a higher law because it limits what governments can do.
As a federation, Canada has eleven sets of constitutional documents, one for the national government, and one for each of the ten Canadian provinces. Constitutional documents vary in what they contain and how much detail they provide about the day-to-day operation of government. British derived constitutional documents typically say little about the institutions of executive government, especially the role of the prime minister, premier, ministers, the cabinet and the relationship between these institutions and parliament.
The 1867 Act (known before 1982 as the British North America Act or simply the BNA Act) is a component of the Canadian constitution together with the Constitution Act 1982 which includes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The 1867 Act established the confederation of Canada by setting up a new national government and dividing law-making power between the national government and the provinces.
The Canadian Constitution Acts set out many of the rules relating to the operation of parliament and executive government in Canada, but they are far from a complete specification of the operation of the Canadian government. Some of the rules relating to the conduct of government can be found in other acts of parliament or official documents; others rely on accepted practices which are not set out in formal constitutional documents. These unwritten rules are sometimes called constitutional conventions.
A copy of the Canada Constitution Acts can be found on the web at:
British Columbia is the only province with an act called the Constitution Act; other provinces have similar legislation but with different designations. Provincial constitutional documents sets out many of the rules relating to the operation of provincial assemblies and executive government, but, as with the Canadian government, the critical relationships between the premier, the cabinet and parliament are not specified. A copy of the British Columbia Act can be found on the Queen’s Printer website:
Constitutional conventions are accepted practices which supplement or modify the provisions of formal constitutional documents. It is a constitutional convention, for example, that the prime minister of Canada is a member of the House of Commons, and that the governor general only dissolves parliament on the
advice of the prime minister.
The formal exercise of power by government in Canada is carried out by the governor general and provincial lieutenant governors in the name of the Crown. The Crown is symbolic head of state of the Canadian federation and its provincial components, and reflects the fact that Canada is a monarchy under Queen Elizabeth II. Bills passed by parliament not become law until they receive the royal assent.
Democracy has become an imprecise term but, at its core, it refers to the belief that governments should be responsive to the wishes of the majority of citizens. This explains why elections and democracy are often thought of as being closely related; elections provide a means of choosing a government acceptable to the majority of voters and, by electing a representative assembly, creating a body which can make governments accountable. But what we think of as democratic government needs more than just elections; it requires a constitutional structure (see constitution) and a set of rules which protect minorities and individuals as well as majorities. See also representative democracy.
A parliament is said to be dissolved when the governor general (or lieutenant governor) ends a session of the parliament and starts the process for holding a general election. In this matter, the governor general (or lieutenant governor) acts on the advice of the prime minister (or premier) alone.
Until 2002, members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia held their seat for five years from the date of the previous general election but, since 2002, provision has been made for the legislative assembly to have a fixed term of four years. See also prorogation.
A division is the name given to a formal vote on the floor of a parliamentary chamber. In several British derived parliaments, voting is carried out by members moving to one or other sides of the chamber, hence ‘division’. In the House of Commons, members rise in their place an indicate whether they agree or disagree with the motion before the house.
The Election Act 1996 (as amended) sets out the administrative machinery for running elections in the Province. Its sections dealing with the many aspects of organizing an election including the appointment and duties of electoral officials, the qualifications and registration of voters, the procedures for calling an election, the procedures for the nomination of candidates, the arrangements for voting, the scrutiny and counting of votes, the registration of parties, the monitoring of election expenditure and political advertising, and the penalties for breaching the rules laid out in the Act. A copy of the Act can be found on the Queen’s Printer website:
For the Canadian House of Commons, the rules for candidates are set out in the Canada Elections Act SC 2000 c 9 (as revised 1 April 2012). The Act sets out the administrative machinery for running elections. It has sections dealing with the many aspects of organizing an election including the appointment and duties of electoral officials, the qualifications and registration of voters, the procedures for calling an election, the procedures for the nomination of candidates, the appointment of official agents for candidates, the arrangements for voting, the scrutiny and counting of votes, the registration of parties, the monitoring of election expenditure and political advertising, and the penalties for breaching the rules laid out in the Act. A copy of the Act can be found at:
The geographical area from which one or more representatives is chosen at an election is called an electoral district. Electoral districts are also called ridings or constituencies; see also seats.
The electoral formula is the rule which governs the translation of votes into seats. The electoral formula for the current electoral system across Canada is a simple one: the candidate who wins more votes than any other in each electoral district is elected.
There are many different kinds of electoral formulas, but they can be grouped into a number of families: plurality systems where seats are won by the candidate with the most votes even if the candidate does not get a majority of votes; majority systems where candidates must get a majority of votes to be elected; proportional systems where the parties fielding candidates are represented in proportion to the votes won by each party; and mixed systems which combine two of these systems.
The electorate is the whole body of electors. The term is also used occasionally to mean a single electoral district.
The institutions of government have traditionally been classified under three heads: the legislature which makes laws; the judiciary which interprets laws and applies them to particular cases; and the executive which administers laws made by the legislature. The biggest of these components is the executive because it includes most of the activities we associate with government—all government departments and public servants as well as the prime minister, premier, the cabinet and ministers are part of the executive.
It can be helpful to subdivide the executive into three components: the formal executive, the head of state which, in Canada is the governor general (for the provinces, the lieutenant governor) acting in the name of the Crown; the political executive which is the prime minister, premier, ministers and the cabinet acting as the key decision makers for steering government; and the public service and government agencies which administer the laws of Canada or a province.
The term federal is used in two ways: ‘the federal government’ refers to the national government in Ottawa. But as an adjective derived from federalism, federal government is a way of dividing government so that there are two spheres of government activity, a national one with responsibility for services which relate to the whole country, and several constitutionally autonomous regional governments called states or provinces to look after regional concerns.
Representative assemblies can be elected for a fixed term (the United States House of Representatives has a fixed term of two years), or for a maximum term with the provision for an early election.
British derived parliaments have usually had maximum terms which, depending on the parliamentary system, have varied between three to seven years. Few parliaments run their full term and are dissolved earlier at a time when the government of the day considers it appropriate to hold a general election; see dissolution.
In British Columbia, as in all Canadian provinces, the discretion to advise the calling of an election has been a powerful weapon in the armoury of the premier to use for partisan advantage. But, since 2002 and the bringing into force of the Constitution (Fixed Election Dates) Amendment Act of 2001, the timing of general elections in British Columbia has been fixed for ‘…May 17, 2005 and thereafter on the second Tuesday in May in the fourth calendar year following the general voting day for the most recently held general election’ (Constitution Act (British Columbia) section 23(2)). Note that the lieutenant governor can still dissolve the legislative assembly before that date (see section 23(1)) but the circumstances required for this to occur would have to be either that the parliament had become unworkable because of split in the governing party or coalition, or that a strong willed premier was willing to advise that a general election be held notwithstanding the ‘fixed’ date.
In everyday language, the government is the label given to the whole structure of public sector activities but the term also has narrower meanings (see executive). Where there is a distinction made between the government and the parliament, government refers to the ministers and public officials who steer the day-to-day operation of departments and agencies, as opposed to the debating, scrutinizing and law making activities which occur in the parliament. The prime minister (or premier) and other ministers, as members of parliament, are politically responsible for government policy and collectively form what is sometimes called the government of the day (see also cabinet). In this narrow sense, the government is the prime minister (or premier) and the body of ministers commissioned to implement the policies of the party or coalition which has the support of a majority of the members of the parliament. See also parliamentary system.
All the functions of head of state for the Canadian government are performed by the governor general in the name of the Crown. The governor general is appointed by (and can be removed by) the Queen. The appointment (or removal) is made on the advice of the prime minister, although the process for appointment and removal is not specified in the constitution.
The formal powers of the governor general are very extensive and include the power to commission governments, to appoint all important Canadian executive, judicial and military officers, to initiate legislation, to endorse all laws passed by the Canadian Parliament, and to summon, prorogue and dissolve parliaments. These powers are, on almost all occasions, exercised on the advice of the prime minister or the privy council (a formal meeting of ministers). The current role of the governor general is to perform official governmental duties as the representative of the Crown, to represent the federal government at a wide range of community functions throughout Canada, and to represent Canada internationally as the Canadian head of state.
The relationships between the governor general, the prime minister, ministers and parliament are not well specified in constitutional documents and rely heavily on customary practices (often called constitutional conventions) rather than constitutional law; see constitution.
In relation to the electoral process, the governor general has a formal role in setting in process the procedures for holding elections for the House of Commons, but is not otherwise involved. If, after an election, no party gains a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the governor general may play an important role in the selection of the prime minister and the formation of a government. The governor general may also play in role in the choice of prime minister if a prime minister resigns in mid-term. See also lieutenant governor.
The head of state is the name given to the office which exercises the formal executive power of the government and, on official occasions, represents the whole political community. While Canada is nominally monarchical in form, the powers of the Crown as head of state are exercised by the governor general for the national government, and the lieutenant governors for the provinces. The head of state in parliamentary systems is an office which is seen to be above politics, in contrast to the head of government who is the prime minister or premier.
Note that the distinctive characteristic of the United States presidential system is that the roles of head of state and head of government are combined in the office of an elected President. In parliamentary systems, the offices of head of state and head of government are kept separate.
The House of Commons is the name given to the lower house of the Canadian Parliament. It currently has 308 members, but this will be increased to 338 at the election due in 2015. Members are elected from single member districts using a first-past-the-post (plurality) electoral formula for a term of five years unless the House is dissolved earlier (see fixed term; dissolution).
The government must maintain the support of a majority of the members of the House of Commons to stay in office. The functions of the House of Commons include passing legislation, authorizing the raising and expenditure of public money, scrutinizing the activities of government, raising issues of public concern, investigating matters of public interest, and acting as a forum for publicizing the concerns of individuals and groups throughout Canada.
An independent candidate or member of parliament is one who is not a member of a political party. Independents have occasionally been elected to Canadian parliaments (one was elected at the 2013 election for the British Columbian Legislative Assembly). A member elected to any parliament as a member of a party may subsequently decide to leave the party and sit as an independent. Most of the members who have resigned from the political party under whose name they were elected (or who have been expelled from the party caucus), join another party or do not contest
subsequent elections. Only small proportion are re-elected as independents.
Laws and government regulations are collectively known as legislation. A bill (a proposal for a law) which has been passed by both houses of the Canadian Parliament or by a provincial legislative assembly, and has been assented to by the governor general (or the lieutenant governor for a province), becomes law as an act of parliament. Such an act of parliament can also be referred to as a statute of Canada or a province. See also bill; private member’s bill; royal assent.
The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has been the elected component of the Province’s parliamentary system of government since the establishment of self-government in the Province in 1871. It is currently a representative body of 85 members elected from single member districts for a fixed term of four years (see also dissolution). The government must maintain the support of a majority of the members of the Assembly to stay in office. The functions of the legislative assembly include passing legislation, authorizing the raising and expenditure of public money, scrutinizing the activities of government, raising issues of public concern, investigating matters of public interest, and acting as a forum for publicizing the concerns of individuals and groups throughout British Columbia.
All Canadian provinces have a representative assembly which discharges similar functions. All but three provincial assemblies are called the legislative assembly; Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador each have a house of assembly, and Quebec has a national assembly.
The legislature is the law making component of government (see executive). In the case of the federal government, the legislature is the House of Commons and the Senate, and for the provinces, the legislature is the provincial assembly. It should be noted that legislation which has passed through the house or houses of the legislature does not become law until it has received royal assent and proclaimed to be in force. See also parliamentary system; representative democracy.
All the functions of head of state for the provinces are performed by the lieutenant governor in the name of the Crown. The lieutenant governor is appointed (and can be removed) by the Governor General of Canada (see The Constitution Act, 1867 (Canada) section 59). The appointment (or removal) is made on the advice of the prime minister.
The formal powers of the lieutenant governor are very extensive and include the power to commission governments, to appoint all important executive and judicial officers in the province, to initiate legislation, to endorse all laws passed by the provincial legislature, and to summon and dissolve parliaments . These powers are, on almost all occasions, exercised on the advice of the premier or the executive council (a formal meeting of the premier and one or more ministers). The current role of the lieutenant governor is to perform official governmental duties as the representative of the Crown, and to represent the province at a wide range of community functions.
The relationships between the lieutenant governor, the premier, the executive council, ministers and parliament are not well specified in provincial constitutional documents and rely heavily on customary practices, often called constitutional conventions, rather than constitutional law; see constitution;
In relation to the electoral process, the lieutenant governor has a formal role in setting in process the procedures for holding assembly elections, but is not otherwise involved. If, after an election, no party gains a majority of seats in the assembly, the lieutenant governor may play an important role in the selection of the premier and the formation of a government. The lieutenant governor may also play in role in the choice of premier if a premier resigns in mid-term.
This term usually refers to a member of parliament chosen from a single member electoral district . Each geographically defined district has a single ‘local’ member. Those supporting single member plurality or majority electoral systems often argue that representation, accountability, and access to government is enhanced by having a single local member to speak for those resident in his or her electoral district. See also electoral formula.
A majority of votes or seats is one more than half the total number of votes or seats; fifty percent plus one. See also plurality.
A majority government is one which is supported by a majority of members of the House of Commons or a provincial assembly, all of whom are members of the same political party. This is in contrast with a coalition government where a parliamentary majority is composed of the members of two (and occasionally more than two) political parties, all of whom have ministers in the government. It can also be contrasted with a minority government where the governing party does not hold a majority of seats but is kept in office by the support of one or more parties (or independent members) who do not have members of their party as ministers in the government.
Members of the Canadian House of Commons are called MP—member of parliament. Members of provincial parliaments usually have titles to suit the name of their legislatures: MLA for a member of the legislative assemblies of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Saskatchewan; MHA for a member of the houses of assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia; and MNA for a members of the National Assembly of Quebec (Député de l’assemblée nationale de Québec). Ontario is unusual in that a member of its legislative assembly is referred to as an MPP—member of provincial parliament. See also seat.
This is the title of someone who is elected to a provincial assembly. The abbreviation MLA can be used as shorthand for a member of the legislative assembly; see member of parliament.
A government minister in Canada is (almost always) a member of the House of Commons or the Senate (or a provincial assembly) who is commissioned by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister (or by the lieutenant governor on the advice of the premier) to be responsible for one or more government departments or areas of government activity. These responsibilities comprise the minister’s portfolio or portfolios. All the ministers in a government, including the premier, are known collectively as the ministry and meet as the cabinet to make decisions about government policy and administration. The lieutenant governor, acting on the advice of the premier, can terminate a minister’s commission. The resignation or termination of the commission of a premier terminates the commissions of all the ministers in that government.
It is assumed that ministers are, or will soon become, members of parliament but this is not constitutionally specified for any Canadian parliament.
A minority government is one where the governing party does not control a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, and has not formed a coalition agreement with another party to establish a parliamentary majority and to share ministerial posts. A minority government is kept in power by an understanding that the government will gain the support of another party (or one or more independent members) who will vote to support the government. This support does not involve the party becoming part of the government’s ministerial team, and the support may not extend to supporting all of the government’s legislative program.
The essence of a minority government is that the support keeping the government in office can be withdrawn at any time, triggering the loss of the government’s majority in parliament (a loss of confidence). Loss of majority support in the parliament gives the prime minister or premier two choices: he or she can resign in favour of the leader of another party who can generate the support of a majority of members in the lower house; or—and this will be the usual outcome—the prime minister or premier can recommend to the governor general or lieutenant-governor that parliament is dissolved and a general election is held.
Minority governments are not necessarily unstable or short lived if they can come to an agreement with another party to support the government. Even with this support, the government must work continually to gain support beyond its own partisan supporters for every piece of legislation. Such a situation makes governments extremely responsive to the views of members of parliament, and open to parliamentary scrutiny in ways which rarely occur under majority governments.
Nomination is the process of fulfilling the requirements for becoming a candidate at an election. It has two components: an official component requiring the candidate to fulfil the formal requirements specified under the relevant election act (see Elections Acts (Canada), Election Act (British Columbia)), and a partisan component requiring a candidate who wants to run under a party label to gain the endorsement of a party. See also candidate.
In a parliamentary system, the members of parliament who do not support the government are known collectively as the opposition. The largest party grouping of these members is often given formal recognition as the official opposition, with its leader known as the leader of the opposition. This recognizes the opposition as a potential alternative government, and the leader of the opposition as the party leader who may become the prime minister or premier after the next general election.
Arrangements can be made under the standing orders of a parliamentary chamber to permit parties to agree that, if a member of the governing party is absent because of sickness or pressing personal business, the opposition will not use the lack of this member’s vote to embarrass the government by defeating it in a parliamentary division. In this way, a government member and an opposition member are ‘paired’.
Parliament is the general name given to legislative bodies in Canada. For the Canadian government, it refers to the House of Commons and the Senate, and for the provinces it refers to their legislative assemblies. These bodies make the laws which regulate our social and economic life and provide the authority for government action. Note that, as law making bodies, parliaments in Canada include the representatives of the Crown whose assent is required for a bill to become law. The executive can also delay or defer the date on which legislation comes into force. This arrangement strengthens the already considerable power of the government of the day to control the process of law making. See also parliamentary system.
These members of parliament are not part of the ministry and do not attend cabinet but, as members of the governing party, assist a minister in the discharge of his or her duties. The position or parliamentary secretary usually involves an additional allowance for the member, and can be seen as a stepping stone to ministerial office.
A parliamentary system of government is one of the two basic forms of representative democracy, the other being a presidential system. The distinguishing characteristic of parliamentary government is that the government of the day is chosen from representatives who have been elected to a parliamentary assembly. That is, the most important elected offices of government—the prime minister or premier and the other ministers who together form the government—are not elected directly but indirectly through parliamentary elections. Since the emergence of parties with strong party discipline, parliamentary government has meant that governments in Canada usually have control over stable parliamentary majorities (see majority government). This greatly reduces the ability of parliamentary assemblies to challenge the wishes of the government of the day in parliament.
Parliamentary systems make a distinction between the head of government (the prime minister or premier) who is the chief elected official in the government, and the head of state who represents the formal exercise of executive power (see governor general; lieutenant governor; Crown).
The other system of representative democracy is presidential government. In this system, the president who is both head of government and head of state, is elected separately from a representative assembly. Ministers are not usually permitted to be members of the assembly but are appointed by the president. Presidential systems combine the offices of head of government and head of state in the president, but aim to check the power of the government of the day by separating power between the president, a powerful legislature and an independent judiciary.
From the perspective of parliament, a political party can be defined as an affiliation of electors comprised in a political organization whose prime purpose is the fielding of candidates for election to parliament. For a party’s name to appear on the ballot paper at a parliamentary election, and for a party to gain tax and other financial benefits, the party must be registered under the relevant electoral act; see Elections Act (Canada), Election Act (British Columbia).
The members elected to parliament under a party label form the parliamentary party or caucus of that party.
In parliaments with members from more than two parties, there will be rules about how many members a party must have in parliament to become an officially recognized party. This is important because being an officially recognized party brings benefits in terms of access to parliamentary resources.
Parties have a long history in Canada, predating confederation in 1867, but parties as we know them today first contested elections in British Columbia in 1903. Before that date, government majorities in British Columbia were maintained by loose groups of members of the assembly united by a general stance on public policy, by loyalty to a particular leader, or by the hope of advancement. The label ‘ministerialist’ is often given to governments which operated in such a system. See also caucus; party discipline; party leader; independents.
Modern parties are disciplined in the sense that, once elected to a representative assembly under the label of a party, it is expected that the member will adhere to the general principles and platform of the party and will vote with his or her colleagues in the parliament. If the member does not conform to the decisions of the party, he or she may denied advancement in the party hierarchy and the patronage available to party leaders (especially so on the government side), and be threatened with expulsion from the party caucus and the withdrawal of the party’s endorsement at the next election (see nomination).
These are powerful inducement for members to conform to the party line. It is the price that members must pay for using the party label to gain election, and to gain the benefits of party membership especially if a member seeks executive office.
The leader of a political party is a person chosen to speak for the party, to be the focus of election campaigns, and to take responsibility for the party’s performance in parliament. If the party wins enough seats to win government, the party leader becomes prime minister or premier. Party leaders in Canada are now chosen by leadership conventions organized by the party, or by a ballot of all party members. See also caucus.
The premier is the name given to the head of government of a province and is the province's chief elected executive official. The premier is commissioned by the lieutenant governor to form a government which has the support of a majority of members of the legislative assembly. The premier is usually the leader of the political party which has won a majority of seats in the legislative assembly. See also cabinet; caucus; coalition; head of state; majority government; minister; minority government; parliamentary system.
Even though the premier is the most important political office in the province, the functions and responsibilities of the premier as head of government are not specified in constitutional law but left to customary practices and conventions.
The prime minister is the name given to the head of the Canadian government, and is the national government’s chief elected executive official. The prime minister is commissioned by the governor general to form a government which has the support of a majority of members of the House of Commons. The prime minister is usually the leader of the political party which has won a majority of seats in the House of Commons. See also cabinet; caucus; coalition; head of state; majority government; minister; minority government; parliamentary system.
The position and role of the prime minister in the governmental system is not well specified in constitutional documents. Even though the prime minister is the most important political office in the national government, the functions and responsibilities of the prime minister as head of government are left to customary practices and conventions rather than constitutional law.
The ‘Queen’s Privy Council for Canada’ (Constitution Act 1867, s.11) is the equivalent of the executive council in the provinces; a formal meeting of ministers to present documents for authorization by the governor general. When ministers of the Canadian government are commissioned, they are sworn in as members of the privy council.
But the privy council has a number of distinctive characteristics that derive from British and Canadian constitutional history. Once a person becomes a member of the privy council, he or she remain so for life, so that the membership of the privy council includes all current ministers and everybody who has ever been a federal minister.
In practice, the privy council can be seen as the formal manifestation of cabinet; only current ministers are involved whenever there is a need for a formal meeting of the council.
A more accurate title for this office would be the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The PCO currently plays a critical role in the operation of the government of Canada in addition to its responsibilities in supporting cabinet meetings and its role in the formal relations between the governor general and the government. For a listing of the responsibilities of the PCO, see:
To prorogue parliament is to terminate the current session of parliament in the period between general elections. The governor general (or lieutenant governor for a province) prorogues parliament on the advice of the prime minister (or premier) alone; to recall parliament, a proclamation is required from the governor general (or lieutenant governor) acting on the advice of the prime minister (or premier). See also dissolution.
For the House of Commons, a period of no more than 45 minutes is made available on most sitting days under standing orders for members to ask ministers oral questions about the administration of their departments or matters of public interest; similar arrangements are made for other parliamentary chambers. In the House of Commons, question time is usually dominated by sparring between the front benches of the various parties to secure favourable publicity in the evening news.
Members may also submit written questions to ministers (questions on notice) but there is often a considerable delay before a member receives an answer.
A great many of the detailed rules affecting our daily life can be found in regulations made by ministers under the authority of the relevant act of parliament. To this extent, much current legislation is less about setting out the law, than providing authority for the government to issue regulations; see also subordinate legislation.
The notion of representation is a complex one but at its core is the idea that one thing can stand for another. Parliamentary democracy is based on the premise that an elected parliamentary assembly can represent the interests of the political community as a whole. Electoral laws are components of this system of representation. What is to be represented and how the representation is to be accomplished are key questions for the design of an electoral system for a parliamentary assembly.
A democratic political system is now assumed to be one in which periodic elections are held to choose key executive and legislative office holders and to keep the government responsive and accountable to citizen voters. That is, popular control of government is achieved indirectly through the election of representatives to act on behalf of the political community. It is now usually taken for granted that democracy means representative democracy rather than direct democracy—the use of such measures as the referendum to secure public consent for public policy.
The term responsible government is often used to describe the relationship between the government—the prime minister or premier and other ministers—and the legislature in British style parliamentary systems. It refers to the fact that the political executive—the prime minister or premier and ministers—are chosen from, and accountable to, an elected parliament. In this respect it is a synonym for parliamentary government.
Responsible government also suggests that ministers are individually and collectively responsible to parliament for the actions of government. This is true in a broad sense—the government will be held accountable for its actions at the next general election—but it is less true if it implies that ministers will be held to account for their actions by parliament. The existence of disciplined political parties has meant that ministers can usually escape punishment for reckless or incompetent actions by themselves or their departments by claiming ignorance or blaming an advisor or a public servant. Punishment is only meted out to ministers if the prime minister (or premier) assesses that the minister has become a political liability to the government as a whole. Note that governments are more sensitive to parliamentary criticism, and ministers are more likely to be forced into resignation, if the government is a minority government.
Parliamentary bills do not become law until they have received the royal assent provided by the governor general (for national legislation) or the lieutenant governor (for provincial legislation). The royal assent is usually accomplished by an exchange of documents, but the procedure is a reminder that the Crown is an integral component of Canadian parliaments.
When elected to parliament, a member is said to hold a seat in parliament, and the membership of the lower house of parliament is defined by the number of seats in the chamber. In Canada, each seat in parliament his held by a member elected from a single member district; there are as many electoral districts as there are members of parliament. In the past, some provincial assemblies included multi-member districts where there was more than one seat to be filled from some electoral districts; see electoral formula.
The Canadian Senate is the upper house of Canada’s bicameral parliament designed, in part, as a way of representing the regional components of the Canadian federation. It is composed of 105 senators appointed until the age of 75 years by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Senators are appointed from Canada’s provinces and territories under a formula specified in the Constitution Act, 1867. The Senate’s constitutional powers over legislation and the scrutiny of the executive are similar to those of the lower house, the House of Commons, but its appointed nature and the partisan way in which senators have been selected since 1867 have usually denied it the political legitimacy to challenge government majorities in the House of Commons.
For information on the Senate, see:
In some parliamentary systems, the opposition party assigns members of the party to take special note of the policy areas dealt with by particular ministers. These opposition members who ‘shadow’ ministers have no official status but may, as a matter of courtesy, be given more access to government information than other opposition members. Some opposition parties may not choose to create shadow ministers or parliamentary spokespersons for particular policy areas, but may give all opposition members responsibility for monitoring an area of government activity. See also backbench.
In Canada, the chair of a parliamentary chamber is called the speaker. He or she is responsible for the conduct of business in the house, for the administration of parliament and for the buildings in the parliamentary precinct. In the House of Commons, the speaker is now chosen by secret ballot of the members; this is the first order of business in a new parliament. In other parliamentary chambers, the office of speaker may be assigned by the governing party.
In Canadian parliamentary parlance, the speech from the throne is the address made by the governor general (or lieutenant governor for the provinces) at the opening of a new session of parliament. The speech is written by the prime minister (or premier) and sets out the goals of the government for the coming parliamentary session. An ‘address in reply’ debate will follow in the lower house of parliament. If the government is defeated in a vote in parliament on the address in reply, the government has lost the confidence of the house and must resign.
Every parliamentary chamber has a set of rules governing the way in which business in carried out in the chamber; this set of rules is often referred to as the standing orders. Control of a partisan majority in the chamber enables the government to change or suspend standing orders.
An indexed copy of standing orders for the House of Commons is set out at:
The most recent standing orders (but harder to use than the above) are at:
This is the official list of all persons eligible and registered to vote at an election.
This term is often used to describe the British variant of a parliamentary system. While the term is frequently applied to describe the Canadian parliamentary system, Canadian parliamentary institutions differ significantly from the British system, most notably in the limitations on parliamentary government imposed by the federal system and the entrenchment of key sections of the Canadian Constitution, judicial review of government action and legislation, and the existence of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The most important common factor between the British and Canadian parliamentary traditions is a monarchical executive and the failure of constitutional documents to specify the roles, functions and responsibilities of the head of state, and the relationship between the prime minister or
premier, ministers and parliament.
The Whip is a member of parliament authorised by the leader of the party to ensure that the members of his or her party are present in the chamber to vote in support of the party’s position on matters before the house. As the name implies, the role of the Whip is to encourage members to follow the party line; see party discipline.