The Prime Minister & Cabinet in Canada

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Jun 1, 2007

The Prime Minister and Cabinet sit at the pinnacle of executive political power in Canada. They are responsible for leading the nation and deciding the direction of national public policy. This article provides an introduction to Prime Minister and Cabinet as institutions in the Canadian government. More specifically, this article discusses the roles and powers of the federal Cabinet and the Prime Minister of Canada, the practices that govern the operation of Cabinet, as well as debates and issues surrounding the political offices.

What is the Federal Cabinet?

Role and powers of the Cabinet in Canada

What is the Prime Minister of Canada?

Role and powers of the Prime Minister of Canada

Federal Cabinet Rules and Practices

Practices that govern the operation of Cabinet

Issues and Debates on the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Responsible government, power of the prime minister, and representation

Links for Further Information

List of links for more on this topic


What is the Federal Cabinet?

The role and powers of the Cabinet in Canada

Cabinet as Government

The Cabinet is a body of political officials that decides the policies and direction of the nation and administers the day-to-day operation of its government. When political scientists and commentators speak of the “Canadian government,” what they are, in fact, referring to is the Cabinet. Interestingly, the Constitution, which sets out the structure of Canada’s governing system, makes no explicit reference to this powerful political institution. Instead, it invests executive political power and authority in the Monarchy and his or her representative in Canada (the Governor General). In practice, however, it is customary for the Cabinet to exercise this power (albeit, of the in the name of the Monarchy), while the Monarch and Governor General act primarily as ceremonial figures.

For more information on Canada’s system of government:
Mapleleafweb: Canada’s Parliamentary Government

Cabinet Ministers

The modern Cabinet consists of political officials called “Cabinet Ministers” or “Ministers of the Crown.” These Ministers are given the responsibility of overseeing specific areas of public policy (such as finance, national defence, or foreign affairs). The most important Cabinet Minister is the Prime Minister of Canada, who is the head of government and the leader of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister has special powers that allow him or her to dominate Cabinet deliberation and control the direction of government.

A Cabinet may also include “Ministers of State." These are junior Cabinet officials that do not have their own government department. They are, instead, often given the responsibility for aiding a senior Cabinet Minister, and will have specialized duties within that Minister’s department. It may also be the case that Ministers of State are given responsibility over some temporary government agency or program that is expected to last only a short period of time.

History of the Cabinet

In understanding why the Cabinet has come to play such a pivotal role in Canadian government, it is important to examine its historical development. When Canada was formed in 1867, it simply adopted the British system of government (often referred to as the Westminster parliamentary system). An important component of the British system is based on unwritten constitutional customs and conventions that have been adopted over hundreds of years. The practice of cabinet government is one of these unwritten customs.

So where did the Cabinet come from? Early in its history, Britain was an absolute monarchy with political power residing within a hereditary King or Queen. The monarch, however, did not govern alone, and usually relied on the aid of a royal court or council. These were special bodies of advisors that would council the monarch on public policy and oversee the day-to-day administration of the kingdom. The origins of the modern Canadian Cabinet can be traced back to these first royal courts and councils.

As Britain developed its Parliamentary system in the 13th and 14th centuries, it institutionalized these royal courts into a special body of advisors called the Privy Council. By the 16th century, however, the Privy Council had grown too large to be of any use as a day-to-day advisory body. As such, British Monarchs began the practice of relying on a smaller committee of the Privy Council, which eventually become know as the ‘Cabinet’.

As Britain moved away from its purely monarchical system, and towards a more democratic system, the role of the Cabinet, with respect to the functioning of government, changed substantially. Responsibility for actually leading government was transferred, over time, from the Monarchy to the Cabinet. Moreover, with the introduction of responsible government (or government responsible to the people), it became customary for the Cabinet to be dependent upon, and accountable to, the democratically elected legislature, instead of the Monarchy.

When Canada was formed upon Confederation in 1867, it simply adopted this British Parliamentary system and its cabinet government. Canada was given its own Privy Council – the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada; the Canadian Cabinet was a special committee of this body. The Canadian Cabinet was given the power to govern day-to-day affairs, and was made responsible to the democratically elected legislature in Canada (better known as the House of Commons).

Powers & Responsibilities of the Cabinet

As the central body in Canada’s Executive branch of government, the Cabinet has many important powers and responsibilities.

Powers of the Crown: To begin with, the Cabinet enjoys several powers that were previously under the complete discretion of the Monarch. While these powers still technically belong to the Crown, it is customary for the Monarch or Governor General to exercise them according to the Cabinet’s wishes. These powers include: the power to submit money bills to Parliament; the power to summon and dissolve Parliament; the power to grant pardons; the power to appoint key state officials, such as Senators and Judges; and, several powers regarding foreign relations, including those governing the signing of international treaties and agreements, and those pertaining to declarations of war and peace.

For more information on the powers of the Crown:
Mapleleafweb: The Monarchy in Canada

Legislative Process Powers: The Cabinet also has powers which stem from from the leadership role it enjoys within the Canadian legislative process. The Cabinet has the power to create and submit legislation to Parliament for approval by Canada’s two legislative chambers – the House of Commons and the Senate. The Cabinet also has considerable powers over the manner in which legislation is deliberated upon by these legislatures. The Cabinet, for example, can shorten or extend the time spent deliberating a piece of legislation at the various levels of the legislative process.

Administrative Powers: The Cabinet also enjoys key administrative powers, a product of the relationship between Cabinet Ministers and the state bureaucracy. Most Cabinet Ministers are the formal heads of a particular government department or agency, and, in this capacity, will act as the department’s chief director and administrator. In this context, Cabinet Ministers set departmental priorities, determine the department’s bureaucratic organization, and oversee the hiring and firing of key departmental personnel.

Quasi-Judicial Powers: Finally, the Cabinet also holds quasi-judicial powers. The Canadian state has a number of regulatory agencies and boards that oversee the operation of important sectors of the Canadian economy and society. The Cabinet is responsible for acting as a court of appeal for many of these regulatory bodies. A perfect example is the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (or CRTC), which regulates the Canadian broadcasting and communications industries. If a company or group disagrees with a particular decision of the CRTC, it may appeal that decision to the federal Cabinet (if the Cabinet so chooses to hear the appeal). That said, a Minister may not, however, intervene in the day-to-day workings of such regulatory agencies and boards.


What is the Prime Minister of Canada?

Role and powers of the Prime Minister of Canada

Head of Government

The Prime Minister is the most powerful political official in the Cabinet and is officially recognized as the Head of Government in Canada. This status stems from the special powers and responsibilities attached to the position, which allow the Prime Minister’s ability to dominate Cabinet deliberation and decision-making (see below for more on the Prime Minister’s powers).

It is important to recognize that, in Canada’s Parliamentary system, separate persons hold the titles of Head of Government and Head of State. While the Prime Minister is the official Head of Government, and is responsible for leading the day-to-day governing of the nation, the Canadian Monarch is the Head of State. The Monarch’s position, however, is mainly ceremonial; it comes with very little political power. This Parliamentary tradition differs significantly from other systems of government, such as the Presidential system that governs the United States; in that context, the US President is both the Head of Government and the Head of State.

For more on the Canadian Monarchy:
Mapleleafweb: The Monarchy in Canada

History of the Prime Minister

In the same way the Canadian Cabinet is rooted in British Parliamentary tradition, so too is the Office of the Prime Minister. Canada adopted the British practice of having a Cabinet led by Prime Minister when the country was formed in 1867. Interestingly enough, in the British tradition there was no official leader of the British Cabinet until the 19th century. Prior to that time, Cabinet Ministers, enjoyed control over their respective departments and worked in concert to address broad government matters. By the 1800s, however, it became customary to recognize a “senior” or “first” minister in the Cabinet, who was later given the title of Prime Minister.

Since Confederation, the role of Prime Minister has undergone considerable change in Canada. In the early years, it was customary for the Prime Minister to exercise very little control over other senior Cabinet Ministers. In fact, it was common to refer to the Prime Minister as simply the “First amongst equals.” Today, however, it is customary for the Prime Minister to dominate his or her Cabinet, and to play a much more central role in government decision-making.

The Powers & Responsibilities of the Prime Minister

The ability of the Prime Minister to dominate Cabinet and the direction of government is due, in large part, to powers and responsibilities that are uniquely associated with this position. These powers and responsibilities include:

  • Powers of the Crown: It is customary for the Prime Minister to exercise many of the powers that were formerly under the discretion of the Monarchy. While these powers technically still belong to the Monarchy, they are exercised completely on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, for example, decides when to dissolve Parliament and when to call a general election. It is even customary for the Prime Minister to choose who will be the Governor General (the Monarch’s representative in Canada).
  • Forming the Cabinet: Much of the power enjoyed by a Prime Minister stems from his or her authority to form the Cabinet. It is the Prime Minister who decides who will actually make up the Cabinet, and what portfolios will be assigned to each person. Accordingly, Ministers owe their allegiance to the Prime Minister, who can promote or demote them, ask for their resignation, and, if necessary, dismiss them from Cabinet altogether. These powers tend to keep Ministers both submissive and supportive of the Prime Minister and his/her policies and priorities.
  • Appointing Public Servants: In addition to appointing Cabinet Ministers, the Prime Minister also has the power to dictate who holds many key offices in the public service. This includes the appointment of Senators, Supreme Court judges, deputy ministers, and heads of government agencies, boards, and corporations. The ability to exercise such power helps keep a Prime Minister’s ‘followers’ on side, while allowing a Prime Minister to impose his/her ideological stamp on much of government. In this way, a Prime Minister who believes in a particular vision of how government should function can use the powers of the Prime Minister’s Office to appoint persons of like-minded thinking to key government positions.
  • Organizing Government: In addition to appointments, the Prime Minister also has significant powers over the actual organization of government. Subject to usual routine Parliamentary approval, the Prime Minister has the ability to create new departments and agencies, transform or abolish old ones, and privatize or nationalize industries and corporations. He or she also has the power to assign specific mandates and priorities to individual government departments and agencies, with or without the permission of the responsible Cabinet Minister.
  • Senior Diplomat: Finally, the Prime Minister is often seen as the nation’s chief diplomat. This is particularly true in the modern era of summit diplomacy when Heads of Governments regularly meet with one another on a face-to-face basis. (This includes bilateral summits with the US President, as well as G8 meetings, Commonwealth conferences, meetings involving La Francophonie, and occasional appearances at the United Nations.)

All told, these collective powers and responsibilities enable the Prime Minister to dominate government decision-making.

The Prime Ministers of Canada (1867-2007)

Name

Party

Tenure

Birth Place

Adult
Residence

Age
as PM

Occupation

Sir John A. Macdonald

Con

1867-
1873

Britain

ON

52-76

Law

Alexander Mackenzie

Lib

1873-
1878

Britain

ON

51-56

Journalist

Sir John A. Macdonald

Con

1878-
1891

Britain

 

 

Law

Sir John Abbott

Con

1891-
1892

QC

QC

70

Law/Lecturer

Sir John Thompson

Con

1892-
1894

NS

NS

48-50

Law/Lecturer

Sir Mackenzie Bowell

Con

1894-
1896

Britain

ON

70-72

Journalist

Sir Charles Tupper

Con

1896-
1896

NS

NS

74

Doctor

Sir Wilfred Laurier

Lib

1896-
1911

QC

QC

54-69

Law

Sir Robert Borden

Con

1911-
1920

NS

NS

57-65

Law

Arthur Meighen

Con

1920-
1921

ON

ON

46-52

Law/Business

W. L. Mackenzie King

Lib

1921-
1926

ON

ON

47-73

Civil Service

Arthur Meighen

Con

1926-
1926

ON

 

 

Law/Business

W. L. Mackenzie King

Lib

1926-
1930

ON

 

 

Civil Service

R. B. Bennett

Con

1930-
1936

NB

AB

60-65

Law/Business

W. L. Mackenzie King

Lib

1936-
1948

ON

 

 

Civil Service

Louis St. Laurent

Lib

1948-
1957

QC

QC

66-75

Law

John Diefenbaker

Con

1957-
1963

ON

SK

61-67

Law

Lester B. Pearson

Lib

1963-
1968

ON

ON

65-70

Civil Service

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Lib

1968-
1979

QC

QC

48-65

Law/Lecturer

Joseph Clark

Con

1979-
1980

AB

AB

39-41

Journalist

Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Lib

1980-
1984

QC

 

 

Law/Lecturer

John Turner

Lib

1984-
1984

Britain

ON

55

Law

Brian Mulroney

Con

1984-
1993

QC

QC

45-54

Law/Business

Kim Campbell

Con

1993-
1993

BC

BC

46

Law

Jean Chrétien

Lib

1993-
2003

QC

QC

59-69

Law

Paul Martin, Jr.

Lib

2003-
2006

ON

QC

65-67

Law/Business

Stephen Harper

Con

2006-

ON

AB

47-

Economist/Writer

(Source: Jackson & Jackson, Politics in Canada, 6th Edition: 2006)


Federal Cabinet Rules and Practices

Practices that govern the operation of Cabinet

The Cabinet operates according to a number of important rules and practices that frame Canada’s basic system of government.

Practice of Responsible Government

One of the most important practices governing the operation of the Cabinet is that of responsible government. While the Cabinet sits at the pinnacle of executive political power, it is nevertheless democratically responsible. In Canada, however, the Cabinet is not directly responsible to the people; citizens do not elect their Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers in direct elections. Instead, the Cabinet is responsible to the people’s elected representatives in the House of Commons (referred to as Members of Parliament or MPs). The Prime Minister and Cabinet can only continue to stay in power so long as they have the support of a majority of MPs in the House. If they ever lose this support, it is customary for them to resign their positions and for a general election to be held.

For more information on the practice of responsible government:
Mapleleafweb: Parliamentary Government in Canada: Basic Organization and Practices

Appointing the Prime Minister

The power to appoint the Prime Minister is technically held by the Crown and is exercised by the Governor General of Canada. However, in practice, the Governor General has very little discretion in making the appointment. Instead, it is customary to simply ask the leader of the political party with the most MPs in the House of Commons to assume the mantle of Prime Minister. This custom is due, in large part, to the practice of responsible government (see above) and the need for the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet to have the support of a majority of MPs in the House. The leader of largest political party in the House should, in theory, always have the best chance of gaining and maintaining this support.

It is also customary for the Prime Minister to be an elected member of the House of Commons. There are, however, some exceptions to the rule. It may be, for example, that a Prime Minister steps down and his/her party selects a new leader who has not yet stood for election. In such a case, the new leader may still assume the office of Prime Minister, but only on condition that s/he immediately run in a by-election.

Selecting Cabinet Ministers

Once appointed, the Prime Minister selects persons to sit in the Cabinet. In making such selections, the Prime Minister often follows several different customs and traditions.

The Prime Minister usually appoints elected Members of Parliament to Cabinet, although, it is permissible to choose those who are not elected to serve. Moreover, a Prime Minister generally appoints MPs solely from his/her political party to serve (unless it is a coalition government). In this way, the Prime Minister often looks to the best and brightest members of his/her party. A Prime Minister may also look to use his/her power to smooth over divisions within the party by, for example, appointing a chief rival to a key Cabinet position.

It is also customary (although, not mandatory) for the Prime Minister to select a Cabinet that is representative of Canada’s regional and linguistic traditions. The Prime Minister will often look to have at least one Cabinet Minister from each province or region in Canada. This custom stems, in large part, from the fact that Canada is a federation and that the Senate has never adequately performed its intended role of representing provincial interests in the federal government. It is also tradition for the Prime Minister to attempt to strike an appropriate balance in Cabinet between the interests of French and English Canada; typically one-third of Cabinet Ministers are French, with the remainder being English. The precise regional and linguistic makeup of a Cabinet, however, often depends on the pool of MPs elected. It may be the case that the Prime Minister simply does not have enough qualified MPs from a particular region or linguistic group, and may not make a related Cabinet appointment.

Cabinet Solidarity & Secrecy

The Cabinet has traditionally been regarded as a collective decision-making body, although it is often the case that the Prime Minister, Cabinet committees, or individual Ministers, will make decisions alone. Regardless of which Ministers (or how many) are involved in making a decision, the Cabinet operates on the principle of Cabinet solidarity. According to this principle, all Members of the Cabinet must publicly defend all Cabinet policies or resign. A classic example of this practice occurred in 2005 when Joe Comuzzi, a Minister of State in the Martin Liberal government, resigned his post on the grounds that he did not support government legislation legalizing same-sex marriages.

In addition to the practice of solidarity, the Cabinet also operates under the principle of Cabinet secrecy or confidentiality. In this regard, Cabinet Ministers are not to disclose information about Cabinet deliberations. Such confidentiality is meant to protect state secrets, to prevent personal gain based on the privileged information available to Ministers, and to protect Cabinet deliberations (and possible discord) from being exploited by Opposition parties and the media. Accordingly, Cabinet documents are not normally made public for a period of 20 years.

Cabinet Committees

To this point, the Cabinet has been discussed as if a single body that meets to make decisions concerning government. While the Cabinet meets as a whole , much government business is also handled in specialized Cabinet committees. In organizing their Cabinets, many Prime Ministers have divided different Ministers into different committees based on their particular areas of public policy. For example, there may be an ‘Economic Committee,’ consisting of Cabinet Ministers who have portfolios related to the economy (such as the Trade Minister and the Minister of Industry).

Some Prime Ministers will also establish some form of a ‘Central’ or ‘Inner’ Cabinet committee, responsible for setting the general priorities and policies of government. This cabinet committee will be chaired by the Prime Minister him/herself, and will generally include only the most senior Cabinet Ministers. The Minister of Finance is almost always on this Inner cabinet committee. Others may include the Minister of Justice, the Minister of National Defence, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and other key ministers representing economic and social portfolios.


Issues and Debates on the Prime Minister and Cabinet

Responsible government, power of the prime minister, and representation

Weakening of Responsible Government

One important issue centres on the principle of responsible government and whether Canadians have an effective democracy in which government is democratically held accountable. As discussed earlier, Canada has a democratic system in which the government (the Prime Minister and Cabinet) is responsible to citizens’ elected representatives, that is, their Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and Cabinet cannot govern unless they have the support of a majority of the elected MPs in the House.

Many political scientists and commentators, however, contend there is an imbalance of power between the Cabinet and the House of Commons. Moreover, they suggest this imbalance limits the ability of MPs to adequately hold the Prime Minister and Cabinet accountable for their actions. According to this view, one major cause of this power imbalance relates to the Cabinet’s ability to use party discipline to ensure it has the support of its party members. With party discipline, a party leader will use certain tactics (such as the threat of demotion or expulsion from the party) to force his/her MPs to ‘tow the party line.’ Hence, when the House of Commons votes on legislation, MPs generally do not vote according to their own personal views, or even those of their constituents. Instead, they will vote according to the views of their party. When the Prime Minister and Cabinet wants to pass legislation in the House, they will use party discipline to ensure all Members of Parliament affiliated with the Party vote in support of the government.

Critics of party discipline argue, however, that these tactics undercut the ability of MPs to hold the government accountable. They contend that Members of Parliament are supposed to act as a democratic check on the Prime Minister and Cabinet, withdrawing support from the government divergences on leadership arise. Because of party discipline, critics argue, MPs are largely incapable of performing this function properly for fear of retribution. They suggest that correcting this practice involves reforming Parliament in such a manner that MPs would have greater freedom to vote against the government. This would include holding more free votes in the House of Commons, occasions when MPs could freely vote outside party lines.

Others defend the current system, arguing that concerns about party discipline and the powers of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in relation to those of Members of Parliament are overblown. This view contends the use of party discipline does not mean MPs may never disagree with party leadership. Dissent can be voiced in behind-closed-doors caucus meetings, or in one-on-one meetings with the Prime Minister and/or appropriate Members of Cabinet. To this end, proponents of this viewpoint suggest there are many cases in Canadian history where concerted dissent within the governing party has forced a Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet to reform a government initiative or policy, or drop it altogether. By contrast, those who in favour the party discipline approach often cite the US as an example of a model not to follow, noting that elected representatives have much greater independence from their political parties, resulting in a legislative process that is very slow and often stalled in political gridlock.

Increase in Prime Ministerial Power

Another important issue concerns the Cabinet as a decision-making body and the centralization of power at the hands of the Prime Minister. Prior to the 1960s, the Cabinet operated in a much more decentralized manner than it does today. Individual Cabinet Ministers had significantly greater autonomy and authority, largely administering their ministries and departments independently of one another, and from any Prime Ministerial interference. Strong Ministers could make many decisions without consulting their Cabinet colleagues, and tended to remain in charge of a single department for long periods of time. This system is referred to as a ‘departmentalized cabinet.’

After the 1960s, however, the departmentalized cabinet was replaced by the ‘institutionalized cabinet,’ in which Cabinet decision-making became far more centralized and individual Ministers lost much of their independence. This change was largely due to the enormous growth of the federation during this period, and the perceived need for government activities to become much more coordinated in addressing complex social and economic issues.

Moreover, as the Cabinet became more institutionalized, and less departmentalized, the Prime Minister became a much more dominant figure in government decision-making. The Prime Minister, either alone or in consultation with select Ministers, will often set the general priorities and direction of the government, and will then use his or her executive staff (at either the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office) to oversee and coordinate the activities of Cabinet Ministers to ensure that those priorities are being met. Cabinet Ministers today make most of their important decisions in consultation with the Prime Minister and his/her executive staffers.

Some have argued that these changes in the operation of Cabinet have resulted in too much political power being centralized in the hands of the Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister is able to hire and fire Cabinet Ministers at will and plays such an important role in ministerial decisions, there is very little that acts as a balance against the exercising of these powers. Moreover, the argument goes that this centralization of power is made worse by the inability of MPs in the House to adequately hold the Prime Minister responsible for his/her actions (see the previous section). The result can be despotic behavior by the Prime Minister and/or acts of corruption in the operation of government. The 2006 Gomery Inquiry into the Sponsorship Scandal, for example, concluded that a major cause of the scandal was a lack of adequate democratic oversight of the activities of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Others, however, have argued in favour of greater power in the hands of the Prime Minister, asserting that such powers have been invaluable in helping to move away from the more ad hoc and incremental decision-making of the past, under the departmentalized cabinet system. With the leadership of the Prime Minister and his or her executive staffers, policy is conducted with more effective coordination, and with the broader picture in mind. It has also been argued that the Prime Minister is not as free of checks and balances as some might suggest, in that the Prime Minister must operate within the boundaries of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and judicial review of government legislation by the Canadian court system. The Prime Minister is also limited by Canada’s federal system, which grants many powers and jurisdictions to the provinces and their respective leaders. Finally, the Prime Minister is not completely immune from dissent within his or her own party.

Under-Representation in Cabinet

Another controversial issue pertaining to the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet concerns the social and ethnic make-up of the Cabinet. The selection of Cabinet Ministers is guided by several important customs and conventions. While these tenets provide for strong regional and linguistic representation in the Cabinet, critics argue they do not adequately address the representation of several other important social groups.

  • See the Cabinet Rules & Practices section of this article for more information on the customs regarding the selection of Cabinet Ministers.

Nearly all of Canada’s minority and vulnerable groups have been consistently un- or under-represented in Cabinet. In this regard, no significant room has ever specifically been made in Cabinet for women, Aboriginal Peoples, workers, the poor, and major visible minority groups. Moreover, there has consistently been an over-representation of white males, and those with business and legal backgrounds.

Critics have argued this under-representation can lead to narrowness in the ideological and political perspectives that originate from within Cabinet, as well as an inability to properly understand the needs and interests of many minority and vulnerable groups – and consequently, a diverse Canadian society. As such, these critics advocate key reforms, such as changing the conventions regarding the selection of Cabinet Ministers so there are certain thresholds for women and members of other groups represented in Canadian society. Others have argued against such reforms, asserting that full representation of Canadian society in Cabinet is impossible; in many cases there are simply not enough Members of Parliament with the relevant social characteristics to provide full representation. Those who hold this view would also suggest that Cabinet, and the government/state in general, can be sensitive to the interests and needs of minority and vulnerable groups without those groups being represented in Cabinet.


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