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Defining of the Constitutional Traditions

“It is said that the Prime Minister of Canada is an elected dictator. Is this true? Examine the powers and constraints of the Canadian Prime Minister. Cite relevant examples.”

Primus inter pares or the “first among equals” – that is how the Prime Minister’s role was defined according to British constitutional traditions (James and Kasoff, 2007: 74). However, in reality first minister holds so much power in his hands that he has long been referred to as an “elected dictator” and his majority government – “elected dictatorship” (Seidle and Docherty, 2003: 155). Nonetheless, a quite common misconception that the Governor General, as a representative of a British monarch, “rules” the country still exists, especially outside of Canada. Officially, the functions of executive power are shared by both the head of the state and the head of the government, yet the Governor General has only formal powers whereas the Prime Minister possesses true political power in the event when his party holds majority of the seats at the House of Commons. That is why in reality the post of the Governor General is truly a ceremonial post, like an Israeli president for example, which is to remind Canadians of their country’s ties with Britain. Interestingly, that according to the constitution not only Governor General has extensive powers but also he/she needs to be advised on every cabinet decision by her “advisors” – the Cabinet and the Prime Minister (Malcolmson and Myers, 2005: 106). It is perhaps due to the processes of democratization and nation building the concepts of responsible government and strong Prime Minister have developed in Canada. Weakened by the WWII, Britain could no longer regain its pre-war influence on Canada loosing the country to the United States sphere of interests completely.

The real power in Canada is vested in the hands of the elected political executive, the Prime Minister, and his Cabinet. However, to become a Prime Minister the following two political contests must be won. Firstly, he must be chosen as a leader within a political party. Secondly, the party must get the upper hand during the general elections. Usually, elections which are conducted using a single-member plurality system will give a wining party an absolute majority in the parliament. The so-called majority government is then formed – undoubtedly the strongest form of parliamentary government. This gives the Prime Minister’s ruling party an ability to pass virtually any legislature that the government decides to put forth (James and Kasoff, 2007: 72-74).

The Prime Minister’s powers and thus responsibilities are enormous: “They [Prime Ministers] are elected leader of their party by party members, they chair Cabinet meetings, establish Cabinet processes and procedures, set Cabinet agenda, establish the consensus for Cabinet decisions;” (Savoie, 1999: 72). The most important Prime Minister’s power is to assign and to remove political executives from his Cabinet as well as to appoint any other individuals on political or administrative posts, like top civil servants (i.e. deputy ministers), senators, federal judges and members of the Supreme Court of Canada. Unlike similar cases of high-rank appointments in the United States, Prime Minister’s appointments are almost never reviewed or questioned (James and Kasoff, 2007: 74-75).

There are few constraints to the Prime Minister, they are: media, public opinion and criticism of the opposition parties. Daily practice of the Question Period in the House of Commons is one (if not the only) of the ways for opposition to try to bring the government into disrepute. PM would have to answer all the questions, even the hostile ones, which are put forward by the opposition without the right to refuse answering or being absent during the session (Thomas, 2000:240).

Interestingly, that Prime Ministers since Pierre Trudeau have themselves used media, in particular television, extensively to communicate with the public (Savoie, 1999: 74). One of such examples is a posting of an open letter written by Prime Minister Trudeau in 1983. Due to public pressure over the signing of Canada-U.S. missile testing agreement over Northern Alberta, PM had to act accordingly and deliver the government’s position on this issue. His two-page letter was written in equally touching and strong languages and defended the government’s position on the matter (Trudeau, 1983: 2). It is important to mention that even though media could have both positive and the negative impacts on the Prime Minister and his Cabinet it plays an important role in delivering messages from the government to the public and vise-versa.

Controlling the membership in his Cabinet, the PM acquires tremendous amounts of influence over all the other members of that powerful executive body (Malcolmson and Myers, 2005: 114-15).Through picking the ministers who would remain loyal to them “…Canadian first ministers are insulated from political pressure from cabinet to a degree unknown in other Westminster systems” (Kernerman and White, 2006: 77-78). It is important to mention that ministers themselves are interested to “go with the flow”. Not only could they be easily promoted to a better position with more privileges and a better salary but also as easily granted a less attractive portfolio or simply dropped from the Cabinet (Malcolmson and Myers, 2005: 114)

There are no written rules that indicate an exact number of years of the Prime Ministerial term. Even though the constitution sets the maximum term for the government – five years, the Prime Minister could easily call an election anytime within these five years as long as the government’s confidence of the chamber is maintained. In the event when the Prime Minister’s party is a minority, the support of the other parties is required in order to ensure the confidence which makes the government less secure (Thomas, 2000: 239).

The questions of Prime Minister’s removal procedures remain unanswered. There were no precedents and the laws that would outline such procedures are simply not yet written. No Prime Minister in the history of Canada has been forced to resign (Thomas, 2000:239). In comparison to first ministers of other Anglo-Celtic Westminster systems, Canadian Prime Minister stands out as almost invulnerable – “…in Australia, more prime ministers were removed from office by their own parties than by the voters. British, Irish, and New Zealand prime ministers also suffered the ignominy of being ousted by their parties, but no modern Canadian prime minister has met that fate” (Kernerman and White, 2006: 81).

It would definitely be an overstatement to call the Prime Minister a dictator. First of all, a dictator is an authoritarian ruler whose power is usually transferred hereditarily. Modern dictators are known to suppress democracies and civil liberties within the society. Elections in dictatorial governments are usually rigged or simply prohibited. The Canadian Prime Minister is bound by the constitution to safeguard those principles and values. Canadian elections are free and democratic. Thus, in our case the term “dictator” is only used indirectly to stress the concentration of powers in the Prime Minister’s hands and limitation of checks that could be used upon him. Indeed, the Canadian executive system could be considered as one of the most effective in the world. However, openness, consultation and some would say democratic standards are sacrificed in order to gain such effectiveness (Thomas, 2000:244).

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