Parliamentary Government in Canada: Basic Organization and Practices

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Oct 13, 2007

Canada’s parliamentary system is a central component to its government. This system frames the relationship between Canadians and their political leaders, the manner in which laws are passed, and the organization and authority of key government positions and institutions. This article introduces the concept of Parliamentary government and provides an overview of how Canada’s parliamentary system operates at both the federal and provincial/territorial levels.

Introduction to Parliamentary Government

Basic concepts of parliamentary government

Institutions of the Canadian Parliament

The Monarchy, House of Commons, and Senate

Practices of the Canadian Parliament

Rules and processes in the operation of Canada’s Parliament

Parliamentary Government in the Provinces/Territories

Comparison of federal and provincial/territorial parliaments

Links to More Information

Lists of links for more on this topic

Introduction to Parliamentary Government

Basic concepts of parliamentary government

Basic Definition of Parliamentary Government

What is a parliamentary government? Generally speaking, parliamentary governments are defined by an absence of clear separation between two key branches of government: the legislative branch, which is responsible for enacting laws, and the executive branch, which is responsible for implementing laws. Instead, in parliamentary governments, the executive branch is “fused with” and “dependent upon” the legislative branch.

In Canada’s parliamentary system, this interrelationship between the legislative and executive branches is expressed in several ways. First, key members of the executive, such as the Prime Minister and Cabinet, are usually drawn directly from the legislative branch. The Prime Minister, for example, is usually an elected member of the House of Commons. As such, s/he performs the dual functions of leading the government, as well as representing his/her riding as a regular member of the House of Commons.

Second, and more importantly, the executive branch is completely dependent upon the legislative branch for its authority. The Prime Minister and Cabinet cannot decide the direction of government or administer enacted laws if it does not enjoy the continual support of the majority of members in the House of Commons. If the executive loses majority support in the legislature, then typically the government will fall, and elections will be held to select a new executive.

Comparison to Other Systems of Government

The parliamentary system of government can be contrasted to other sorts of government; in particular, presidential systems found in countries such as the United States. Presidential governments have a clear separation between the executive and legislative branches of government.

In the US, for example, the leader of the executive branch, the President, is not drawn from the legislative branch, but is elected separately in presidential elections. Moreover, the President does not depend upon the legislative branch for his/her authority. S/he does not need majority support in the legislature in order to maintain power, but instead governs until the next presidential election. (However, in the US, the legislative branch can remove the President if he/she found guilty of committing certain wrongdoings.)

The parliamentary system of government can also be contrasted with hybrid systems that include aspects of both the parliamentary and presidential governments. France, for example, has both a President, who exercises power independent of the legislative branch, and a Prime Minister, who is directly dependent upon the support of the elected members of the French legislature.

Institutions of Canada’s National Parliament

The Monarchy, House of Commons, and Senate

British Westminster Model of Parliament

While all parliamentary governments are the same in that they fuse the executive and legislative branches of government, they often differ substantially otherwise. Canada’s parliamentary system is referred to as a “Westminster Model.” This model was first developed by the British and is named after the Palace of Westminster, which houses the British Parliament. Many former colonies of Great Britain, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, adopted this British parliamentary model once they became independent nations.

The Westminster parliamentary model is distinctive in several ways. First, most Westminster parliaments include a monarch; that is, a king or queen who represents the national sovereign. In most modern Westminster models, however, the monarch is primarily a symbolic figure with little actual political power. Second, most parliaments based on a Westminster model are bicameral, meaning they have two legislative houses or chambers. This generally includes a “lower” house made up of members elected directly by citizens, and an “upper” house made up of appointed or hereditary members.

Under a Westminster model, typically each of these components must approve legislation for it to become law. In other words, the monarch, as well as both the lower and upper legislative houses must pass it. The precise procedure for enacting legislation can differ somewhat between different Westminster-based parliamentary systems.

The Monarchy in Canada’s Parliament

In Canada’s Parliament, the national sovereign is the Canadian Monarch, which the country shares with the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations. Most of the monarch’s day-to-day parliamentary responsibilities, however, are performed by the Governor General, the Monarch’s representative in Canada.

Before any legislation becomes law, the Monarch (or, in practice, the Governor General) grants “Royal Assent,” that is, formal approval. In addition to approving legislation, the Governor General (as the Monarch’s representative) also has the power to appoint key parliamentary officers and leaders, including the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and leaders of the legislatures. The Governor General opens and closes parliamentary sessions (periods when the legislative houses sit and undertake parliamentary business), and to dissolve a particular parliament (which usually leads to an election and the forming of new parliament).

It is important to note, however, that while the Governor General (as the Monarch’s representative) holds these parliamentary powers in theory these powers are rarely exercised independently of the Prime Minister and the elected legislature. It is general custom that the Governor General always grants Royal Assent to legislation passed by the legislative houses. Moreover, the Prime Minister usually decides when to open and dissolve parliaments, with the Governor General simply carrying out the Prime Minister’s decision.

For more information on the Canadian Monarch and the Governor General of Canada:

Legislative Houses in Canada’s Parliament

In Canada’s Parliament, there are two legislative houses or chambers: the House of Commons and the Senate. The House of Commons is an elected house, which is constituted by representatives elected at the local constituency level. The Senate, in contrast, is an appointed house consisting of members appointed by government.

The House of Commons is the primary legislature in Canada’s Parliament. All legislation must be approved by the House of Commons (by majority vote) in order for it to become law. Moreover, the government of the day is highly dependent upon the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are usually drawn from the elected members of the House, and the government must maintain majority support in the House in order to stay in power (cabinet minister have also been drawn, in rare cases, from the Senate).

The Senate also plays an important role in Parliament, albeit a less politically powerful one. All legislation must be approved by the Senate (again, by majority vote) in order for it to become law. It is, however, generally customary for the appointed Senate to automatically approve legislation that has been passed by the elected House of Commons. Nevertheless, the Senate does engage in extensive review of parliamentary legislation and will, on rare occasion, reject legislation passed by the House. Moreover, the Senate does not enjoy the same level of interaction with the government of the day as the House. Rarely are Cabinet members drawn from the Senate, and the government does not need to maintain majority support in the Senate in order to remain in power.

For more information on the Canadian Senate:

Practices of Canada’s National Parliament

Rules and processes in the operation of Canada’s Parliament

Written and Unwritten Constitutional Rules

The basic framework of Canada’s parliamentary government is set out by the national Constitution. Central to this is the Constitution Act, 1982, which forms the core of Canada’s written Constitution. The Act sets out such things as the different components of the national Parliament, their basic mode of operation, as well as their specific powers and authority.

Much of Canada’s parliamentary system, however, is also governed by unwritten constitutional conventions and customs. These are rules and practices regarding the operation of the Parliament, which have been developed incrementally over time, and have never been formally codified in writing. This does not mean they are any less binding – only that they are based upon historical practice instead of explicitly written principles.

Many of these unwritten customs have been borrowed from Britain, the original model of the Westminster Parliament. The British practice of responsible government, for example, was first adopted by Canadian colonies as they moved from authoritarian colonial governments to democratic governments. Other British customs were adopted by Canada in 1867, when the country was formed during Confederation.

Practice of Responsible Government

The concept of responsible government is at the heart of Canada’s parliamentary system of government. For many people, however, it is a confusing concept. When asked to define responsible government, most people intuitively believe it means that government (that is, the Prime Minister and Cabinet) is responsible to the citizens it presides over. While there is an element of truth to this, the technical meaning of responsible government is that the government is responsible to Parliament, and, in particular, the elected representatives of the House of Commons.

Under Canada’s system, the Prime Minister and Cabinet must maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. This means that a majority of Members of Parliament (MP) must support the government. This support, or lack thereof, is most commonly expressed when the government submits legislation to the House for its approval. If a majority of MPs vote in favour of the legislation, then the government has maintained the confidence of the House; if a majority vote against the legislation, then the government has lost the House’s confidence.

Votes against important pieces of government legislation, such as the federal budget, will result in the government falling. In the event this happens, the Prime Minister usually submit his/her resignation to the Governor General, who, typically, calls for an election or, in rare cases, asks another Member of Parliament (customarily the Leader of the Opposition Party with the greatest number of sitting members) to try to form a government that will have the confidence of the House.

Another way in which confidence is expressed in a particular government is through direct votes on the government itself. A Member of Parliament may, for example, introduce a motion calling for the resignation of the government. If the motion passes with a majority of votes, then the government is deemed to have lost the confidence of the House, and the Prime Minister will submit his/her resignation to the Governor General.

In addition to votes on the government or its legislation, the House further holds the government responsible through the relentless review of individual cabinet ministers and their actions. Ministers must account to the House for the way they run their departments, their policies and budgets, and any mistakes made by department officials. This is what the daily Question Period is all about: it provides a forum for individual MPs to ask questions of Ministers. It is one of the most visible ways the government is held responsible to the House of Commons. The Standing Committee system also provides a series of parliamentary committees that “shadow” government departments and oversee their operations.

The idea of responsible government is infused throughout the parliamentary system. Interestingly, though, this idea does not appear anywhere in Canada’s written constitutional documents. It is, however, considered to be a constitutional convention – an unwritten rule that Canada’s political actors view as binding.

Practice of Parliamentary Supremacy

Another important characteristic of Canada’s parliamentary system is the practice of Parliamentary supremacy or sovereignty, which generally means that Parliament is to be regarded as the highest political institution in Canada’s political system, with no limits on its powers and authority. Essentially, Parliament may make or unmake any laws as it deems, and no other political institution may undermine Parliament’s ability.

The concept of parliamentary supremacy is rooted in British tradition and its democratic evolution. Britain was dominated early in its history by two non-democratic institutions: the Monarchy and the Church. As the nation moved towards democratic reform in the 16th and 17th centuries, it sought to undermine the power of these institutions and replace them with government by the people. As such, the democratic institution of Parliament was recognized as the highest political body in the nation – a body that would not be limited by other forms of authority, such as the Monarch or the Church. The practice was formally carried over to Canada at the time of Confederation in 1867.

In Canada, however, there are several important limitations on Parliamentary supremacy. One limitation stems from the organization of Canada as a federal state with multiple levels of government. The federal Parliament is not the only legislature in the country; there are also several provincial legislatures with their own constitutionally protected powers and jurisdictions. This means that parliamentary sovereignty is limited in Canada, with the federal Parliament having to share law-making supremacy with its provincial counterparts. This differs from non-federal parliamentary nations, such as Britain, where there is only one level of government and the British Parliament does not share law-making supremacy with any provincial or state counterpart.

Another limitation on parliamentary supremacy stems from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, which was formally included within the Canadian Constitution in 1982. The Charter provides all citizens with certain rights and freedoms that cannot be violated by the federal Parliament or provincial legislatures, such as freedom of speech, democratic rights, and the right not to be discriminated against. Accordingly, the judiciary has the power to review any legislation passed by Parliament to ensure it is consistent with these Charter entitlements. This represents an important limit on the Parliament and juxtaposes the courts as an important check on the law-making ability of parliamentarians.

Official Opposition in the House and Senate

Canada’s Parliament exhibits a wide variety of parliamentary processes and events, some of which are briefly reviewed here. Firstly, central to the operation of parliament is the existence of an Official Opposition in each legislative chamber, the House of Commons and the Senate. The Official Opposition is usually the political party with the most seats in a particular legislature after the party that forms the government. The leader of the party will usually become the Leader of the Official Opposition. The Official Opposition’s purpose is to be critical of government decisions, and to provide alternative policies for political debate and public consumption. In performing this role, the Official Opposition is provided with resources, employees, offices, and special status in Parliamentary debate.

Parliamentary Committee System

Another important element in the operation of Parliament is the parliamentary committee system. Both the House of Commons and the Senate have their own committees, comprising members of the respective houses. In some cases, there are also joint committees consisting of members of both legislative houses. The general role of these committees is to review government legislation and policies and to recommend possible improvements to them. Parliamentary committees, however, may only offer advice to the government, which it may or may not heed. Committees, in of themselves, cannot reject or hold up government initiatives. There are standing or permanent committees, which are assigned to key policy fields such as finance, defence, foreign affairs, etc. There are also ad hoc or temporary parliamentary committees which are formed for short periods of time to review a particular government initiative or policy field.

Federal Government Budget

A key event of in parliamentary life is the passing of the federal budget. The budget sets out two elements of the government’s finances. It provides an estimate of future government revenues, and from where it will be collecting these monies. The budget also provides details on government expenditure, such as how much money it will be spending and where it will be spending that money. The federal budget is presented to Parliament each year, usually around February. In order for the budget to be implemented, it must be passed by majority vote in both the House of Commons and the Senate, as well as receive Royal Assent from the Monarch (or Governor General). A vote against the budget in the House of Commons is recognized as a vote of non-confidence for the government, which can lead to the fall of the government and the holding of general elections.

For more information on the federal budget:

Speech from the Throne

Another important event in the parliamentary life is the annual Speech from the Throne (or “Throne Speech”). The Throne Speech outlines the current government’s agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session. It will detail such things as the government’s priorities, the sorts of legislation it will introduce, and the government initiatives it will pursue. The Throne Speech is delivered by the Monarch or his/her representative in Parliament (the Governor General of Canada). The Speech itself, however, is not written by the Monarch, but by the government (usually the Prime Minister’s office). Moreover, the Throne Speech is delivered to a combined sitting of the both legislative houses, the House of Commons and the Senate. Once delivered, members of the legislatures have the opportunity to debate the government’s agenda outlined in the Throne Speech and vote on whether or not they approve of it. A vote against the Throne Speech in the House of Commons can be interpreted as a vote of non-confidence in the government (and could lead to the fall of the government and an election).

Parliamentary Government in the Provinces/Territories

Comparison of federal and provincial/territorial parliaments

Canada has two levels of legislatures. The first is the national or federal Parliament, which includes the Monarch, House of Commons, and the Senate. The second are regional legislatures, which includes provincial legislatures (which are provided for under the Constitution) and territorial legislatures (which are creations of the federal government). Like their federal counterpart, these provincial/territorial legislatures operate under a parliamentary system of government. The following provides a brief overview of their operation.

Fused Executive and Legislative Branches

As with the federal level of government, provincial and territorial governments operate under a parliamentary system in which the executive branch of government is fused with, and dependent upon, the legislative branch. Members of the executive branch, which includes a Premier and Cabinet, are drawn from their respective legislatures. Moreover, provincial/territorial premiers and cabinets are dependent upon their legislatures in order to stay in power. A Premier and their Cabinet must maintain majority support amongst members of the legislature in order maintain power and exercise their authority. If they lose this support, usually the government falls and a general election is held.

The Monarch in Provincial Legislatures

Moreover, like the federal Parliament, the Monarch plays a key role in the operation of provincial legislatures. Similar to the federal Parliament, the Monarch must grant Royal Assent to all provincial legislation before it becomes law. Moreover, the Monarch has the power to appoint key legislative and government officials, as well as to open and close legislative sessions, and to dissolve legislatures.

The day-to-day activities of the Monarch are performed by Lieutenant-Governors his/her representative in the provincial legislature. These representatives are formally appointed by the federal Governor General on the advice of the provincial Premier and Cabinet.

As is the case at the federal level, these powers of the Monarch are mainly ceremonial, and are exercised in practice by the provincial Premier and Cabinet.

Commissioners in Territorial Legislatures

Territorial legislatures also have a ceremonial figure similar to a Lieutenant-Governor, referred to as a Territorial Commissioner. However, while appointed by the Governor General of Canada, territorial Commissioners are not official representatives of the Monarch. Instead, they are simply the official representatives of the federal government, which is due to the fact that territories are creatures of federal legislation with no constitutional autonomy of their own. Territorial Commissioners perform many of the same functions as the Monarch’s representative at the federal and provincial levels, such as approving legislation before it becomes law, which is referred to as granting “Commissioner’s Assent”. In other aspects, however, these Commissioners have less responsibility. In the Yukon and Northwest Territories, for example, it is the federal Governor General, and not the respective Commissioner, that dissolves the legislature.

Unicameral versus Bicameral Legislatures

A central difference between parliamentary governments at the provincial/territorial and that at the federal level is the number of legislative bodies. The federal Parliament is a bicameral legislature, meaning there are two legislative bodies: the House of Commons and the Senate. At the provincial/territorial level, however, there is only one legislative body, usually referred to as a provincial assembly. Members of these assemblies are elected at the local constituency level and are responsible for passing all legislation under their respective jurisdictions. Moreover, provincial/territorial governments, which include the Premier and Cabinet, are responsible to their respective assemblies for their executive authority.

Key Legislative Processes and Events

Many of the processes and events that occur in the federal Parliament are also evident at the provincial/territorial level.

Provincial and territorial legislatures usually have Official Oppositions, formed by the political party with the largest number of seats not in government. The territories of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are exceptions; they practice consensus government in their legislatures. Under this approach, members of the legislature are not organized in political parties, but operate, instead, as independents with informal allegiances to other members. As such, there is no Official Opposition in these legislatures. Instead, legislative members not in government organize into an unofficial opposition, and fill the role of criticizing government legislation and policies.

Most provincial legislatures also operate some form of a committee system, in which legislative members review and offer advice on government legislation. Provincial and territorial legislatures also have a Speech from the Throne, which is delivered by the Lieutenant-General in the case of provincial legislatures, and the Commissioner in the case of territorial legislatures. Finally, all provincial/territorial legislatures have an annual budget process, in which the government of the day must present financial estimates, and which must be approved by the legislature and the Monarch.

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