Political parties

Our system could not work without political parties. Our Major existing federal parties--Progressive Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic--were not created by any law, though they are now recognized by the law. We, the people, have created them ourselves. They are voluntary associations of people who hold broadly similar opinions on public questions.

The party that wins the largest number of seats in a general election ordinarily forms the government. Its leader becomes prime minister. But if the government in office before an election comes out of the election with the second largest number of seats, it has the right to meet the new House of Commons and see whether it can get enough support from the minor parties to give it a majority. It may find itself able to carry on. This happened in 1923-26 and in 1972.

The second largest party (or, in the circumstances just described, the largest) becomes the official Opposition, and its leader becomes "the person holding the recognized position of leader of the Opposition." The leader of the Opposition gets the same salary as a minister. The leader of any party which has at least 12 seats also gets a higher salary than an ordinary MP. These parties also get public money for research.

Why? Because we want criticism, we want watchfulness, we want the possibility of an effective alternative government if we are displeased with the one we have. The party system reflects the waves of opinion as they rise and wash through the country. There is much froth, but deep swells more beneath them, and they set the course of the ship.

The prime minister

As we have already noted, the prime ministership (premiership), like the parties, is not created by law, though it is recognized by the law. The prime minister is, normally, a member of the House of Commons (there have been two in the Senate, in 1891-92 and 1894-96). A non-member could hold the office but would, by custom, have to get elected to a seat very soon. If the prime minister loses his seat in an election, he can remain prime minister as long as his party keeps a majority in the House of Commons, though again, he must, by custom, win a seat very promptly. The traditional way of arranging this is to have a member of the majority party resign, thereby creating a vacancy, which gives the defeated prime minister or non-member party leader the opportunity to run in a by-election.

The prime minister is appointed by the Governor General. Ordinarily, the appointment is automatic. If the Opposition wins more than half the seats in an election, or if the government is defeated in the House of Commons and resigns, the Governor General must call on the leader of the Opposition to form a new government.

The prime minister used to be described as "the first among equals" in the cabinet, or as "a moon among minor stars." This is no longer so. He is now incomparably more powerful than any of his colleagues. Not only does he choose them in the first place, but he can also ask any minister to resign, and if the minister refuses, the prime minister can advise the Governor General to remove him and the advice would invariably be followed. Cabinet decisions do not necessarily go by majority vote. A strong prime minister, having listened to the opinions of all is colleagues, and finding most, or even all, opposed to his own view, may simply announce that his view is the policy of the government, and, unless his dissenting colleagues are prepared to resign, they must bow to his decision.

(text of excerpt from 'How Canadians Govern Themselves' pamphlet)

© Minister of Supply and Services 1982