What are the actual extent – and limits – of the power of the Prime Minister?

Individuals often compare the prime minister of Canada to the President of the United States. Many believe the prime minister lacks in comparison; however, the office of the prime minister is more powerful than it seems. The true power of the prime minister comes from the unwritten constitutional conventions and his/her ability to increase governmental control. The following will focus on outlining the sources of prime ministerial power, the power’s constraints and how the prime minister may be seen, according to journalist Jeffrey Simpson, as a friendly dictator.


Source of Prime Ministerial Power

In 1867, the Western British colonies were united under one central government through the British North America Act, 1867; later renamed to the Constitution Act, 1867. The BNA Act aimed to establish a representative government, however due to Canada’s natural barriers and size, it introduced federalism. Federalism brought together Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia under one federal government, while establishing provincial governments. The BNA Act, 1867 established representative democracy in Canada, aligned with the parliamentary principles of the Westminster Model. This aimed to create a parliament that is unchallenged in the process of creating laws. The BNA Act, 1867 further established a government system in which the governor general became the representor of the constitutional monarch, who acts under the advice of the prime minister. The governor general appoints the leader of the party which can win confidence within the House of Commons to formulate government—the introduction of the party government system. Confidence in the House of Commons ensures government policies pass smoothly and is a signifier of prime ministerial power.

Canada is a former colony of Britain that gained its freedom through peaceful methods, not through revolutionary means. The influence of Britain lingers within Canada as one looks for sources of prime ministerial power. Canada adopted Britain’s use of entrenched and unwritten constitutional conventions. The origin of prime ministerial power is not the Constitution but is instead an unwritten constitutional convention introduced alongside the BNA Act 1867—responsible government. The convention of responsible government is embodied within the Westminster Model as it states government must maintain the confidence of the House of Commons to ensure government continues to operate smoothly. This convention works alongside the goal of the BNA Act 1867: create a parliament that is unchallenged in the process of creating laws.

A source of prime ministerial power is his/her control over the governing party, cabinet ministers and members. The prime minister can spread his/her influence and control over departments and agencies through the appointment of members in agencies of interest. This enables the prime minister to gain power and control in these areas due to party discipline. Members of parties view themselves as members of a team. A constant increase in party loyalty is evident and allows party leaders to work towards their goals without internal conflicts. Party loyalty ensures appointed members do not go against the prime minister and strengthens his/her control over departments he/she wishes to control.

The prime minister’s power to pass laws is most prominent in majority governments; a situation in which the Prime Minister’s party has more than 50 percent of the seats within the House of Commons. In a situation such as this, opposing parties are unable to go against the prime minister. A majority government is never in risk of losing confidence due to party discipline. In minority governments, the prime minister can gain confidence through negotiations with other parties. This, however, leaves the prime minister vulnerable to the demands of opposing parties. As seen in the past, the prime minister can bypass minority governments using carefully timed elections. The prime minister can aim to be re-elected with a majority government when polls demonstrate his/her party has a high level of support. The governor general holds the power to dissolve government and trigger elections, however under responsible government, the governor general acts according to the advice of the prime minister. The control over the House of Commons is a major source of power for the prime minister. It allows the prime minister to gain control of the legislative branch, along with his/her control of the executive branch.

Opposition to Prime Ministerial Power

Even as the representative of the elected government, the prime minister faces opposition within government. The prime minister sets the agenda, controls the flow of information, and makes final decisions. To prevent overload, the government can only run if ministers run their own departments. Ambitious ministers and members can become opposition for the prime minister as they may take actions without the consent of the prime minister. For example, under Jean Chrétien’s government, the Health Minister, Allan Rock, released a new health care plan that increased the role of the federal government without Chrétien’s consent. This plan introduced new implications for the federal-provincial relations, which Chrétien had to address. The ambition to be re-elected also pushes members of parliament to focus on local projects, neglecting other roles. Members do not benefit from advocating to a broad audience, so they promote local projects. This may benefit the prime minister as positive actions improve party support. However, it is also possible for members and ministers to create new issues for the prime minister, which can harm the party’s image and support. To ensure government runs smoothly, the prime minister must avoid unwanted attention and keep the ministers out of trouble, however this is not a simple task. For example, under the 2010 Harper government, the Minister of International Cooperation hurt the government’s reputation as he failed to tell the truth regarding his department.

The finance minister poses a threat as an opposing power as the finance minister has control over agenda-setting, alongside the prime minister. Financial policies do not always go in favour of the prime minister, but instead the way of the finance minister. The prime minister must approve of the agenda; however, history demonstrates that popular finance ministers can go against the prime minister. Popularity can make the finance minister a threat as the prime minister cannot easily remove ministers with high public approval. It is rare for the minister to oppose the prime minister as he/she risks losing his/her job, however it is possible.

In the House of Commons, party member support poses a threat to prime ministerial power. To pass legislation, the prime minister depends on his/her party members for support. One can see the importance of member support through Paul Martin’s ambition to create a ballistic missile program with the United States and his pro-same sex marriage policies. Paul Martin’s policies received backlash from his members and did not go through. This shows that prime ministers do not have the freedom to create policies that go against party ideologies, even with party discipline. Within the House of Commons, opposing parties create opposition as minority government is common. In minority governments, the prime minister’s party has less than 50 percent of the seats, making it more difficult to pass legislation. The prime minister must also ensure he/she maintains confidence within the House of Commons to maintain power. As a result, the prime minister must ensure opposing parties are satisfied.

The prime minister faces constraints on power from factors outside the government. The media is a major influencer in politics as it plays a major role as a communicator between political actors and citizens. Media is beneficial for the prime minister as it gives him/her free publicity, however, the media can also harm the image of the prime minister through its role of watchdog. The media keeps tabs on political actors on behalf of the people. It informs citizens about concerning issues and aims to highlight mistakes made by the prime minister. The media can also alter citizens’ perceptions through agenda setting and priming. By highlighting certain issues in the media and ignoring others, media can influence the agenda. The media can alter which issues individuals view as important, moving the prime minister’s attention towards these issues. Priming expands on agenda setting as media affects the standards we utilize when evaluating leaders. As an issue becomes more important in the eyes of the public, individuals will use the actions taken to solve the issue and stats to evaluate the prime minister, impacting approval ratings. Agenda setting and priming together can force prime ministers to direct their attention to other issues to maintain approval ratings.

With the increase in globalization, prime ministers see their power reduce at the international level. International trade agreements limit the influence prime ministers have when dealing with other countries. With the rise of China and a movement to a bipolar international system, a realist perspective suggests that the prime minister will see a reduction in power at the international level. In the current unipolar international system, the prime minister faces few barriers to trade, however in a bipolar system, the threat of protectionist policies plays a more active role. Difficulties negotiating with pro-China countries arise, as in a bipolar system the superpowers become rivals. Canada may face difficulties in future negotiations regarding trade and see a decline in its overall power as the United States loses its status as the solo superpower. The prime minister’s international influence is highly dependent on the relationship between Canada and the United States.

Provinces pose issues to the prime minister’s power as the prime minister is responsible for federal-provincial relations. The prime minister must keep the provincial interests in mind when making decisions, however provincial interests do not always align with national interests. For example, when the Harper government attempted to adjust the federal-provincial financial support system, provincial interests were against it. The federal-Quebec relationship poses the greatest threat. Quebec raises issues often and takes attention away from issues more relevant to a broader swath of Canadians. In 1975, the formation of the Parti Quebecois, a party focusing on separating Quebec from Canada, incentivized Pierre Trudeau to establish a central agency, through which the prime minister deals with federal-provincial relations. Federalism also separates the jurisdictions under which the federal government and provincial government have control. It prevents the concentration of power within the federal system.

What Makes the Prime Minister Dictator-Like?

The British North America Act 1867 aimed to develop a parliament that is unchallenged when creating laws. The goal of creating a smoothly-operating government is responsible for making the prime minister a powerful individual, sometimes with powers reminiscent of a friendly dictator. Even with the opposition to his/her power, the prime minister can gain control over his/her opposition. Provinces often require the assistance of the federal government. As a result, Premiers do not have difficulties consulting the prime minister. However, when prime ministers agree to assist, Premiers lose their influence over the issue. Discussion moves to Ottawa and the prime minister and his/her advisors deal with the issue. The influence over provinces is further strengthened as prime ministers no longer need the assistance of regional ministers when evaluating policy effects. Polls allow the prime minister to ensure policies are gaining positive traction. Polls also allow prime ministers to challenge ministers.

The prime minister has the power to appoint individuals of his/her choice to power. The prime minister can appoint members to the Senate, Supreme Court judges, ministers, and administrative heads of governmental departments without Cabinet consensus. This allows the prime minister to appoint loyal, polarized individuals to gain control of other areas of government. The prime minister has complete control within the Cabinet as he/she establishes the process, sets agendas, and chooses the members. The prime minister has the power to bypass the Cabinet and direct issues as he/she pleases.

Prime ministers have demonstrated dictator-like behaviour as they pursued the goal for power. During Pierre Trudeau’s time in office, the government instigated a movement to strengthen the centre of government. In response to the dominant control departments ministers have over policy-making, Trudeau took the policy-making power away from departmental ministers and assigned it to the Cabinet. As a result, the Trudeau government strengthened Cabinet, however most of the power is spread to the prime minister. The trend of increasing prime ministerial power continues to be prominent ever since Trudeau’s time in office.

Prime ministers can also act as dictators within their own parties. With the intensification of party discipline, parties have begun to think of themselves as members of a team. Prime ministers pass policies and pass confidence votes with the notion that their members will back them. Party discipline allows the prime minister to gain control over the legislative branch. The atmosphere within parties do not welcome individuals who go against the primary minister. Members ensure they do not go out of party lines in fear of losing their position. Backbenchers hold minimal policy influence and repeat party approved messages. They operate within the party guidelines, hoping to climb the pyramid scheme and one day join Cabinet. The prime minister does not approve of disloyalty as evident within the SNC Lavalin case. Different views are essential for democracy; however, bully-like behaviour prevents others from sharing.

The governor general, despite being the representative of the Queen, works under the advice of the prime minister. As such, the prime minister can abuse his/her power to dissolve government and trigger election as he/she sees fit. The prime minister can use taxpayers’ money on polls and keep the results to him/herself. The results may also be kept secret for strategic use. Using polls, the prime minister can escape situations of minority government and run elections when he/she is ahead. Prime ministers can abuse their power over the governor general to prolong their stay in power. For example, in 2008, PM Harper got prorogation from the governor general to avoid a motion of non-confidence. Under responsible government, the governor general follows the advice of the prime minister, however they may refuse using the reserve powers of the Crown. Only once, has the governor general neglected the advice of the PM — during the 1926 King-Byng affair. Still, the governor general, at least in theory, acts as a roadblock from dictator-like control.

The prime minister is the strongest individual in the Canadian parliamentary system. Due to the trend of increasing prime ministerial power and the protection of the entrenched Constitution, the power remains under protection. As the leader of the executive branch, the prime minister faces many oppositions to his/her power, however, the prime minister has his/her own methods of keeping the opposition at bay. The prime minister’s ability to manipulate and control the government creates an image of a friendly dictator. The aim to create a smooth operating government may have accidentally made the prime minister more powerful than he/she needs to be. Although the prime minister has more discretionary power than many realize, the robust checks and balances built into our democracy are well-suited to preventing prime ministerial overstretch – as long as we remain vigilant.

About Ravdeep Sandal

Ravdeep Singh Sandal is a fourth-year undergraduate student studying in the economics and political science specialist program at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). He is a teaching assistant for a second-year econometrics course and a third-year economic history course at UTM. In January 2019, he obtained his immigration license and became a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (RCIC). As an RCIC, he manages his own business and consults individuals who aim to immigrate to Canada. Entering his fourth year, Ravdeep began his internship as a Program Editor at NATO Association of Canada. During his free time, Ravdeep works on learning new compositions and raags, as he sings and plays classical music on the harmonium. In the future he aims to pursue his Masters of Economics. His interests include international relations, economics, political science, immigration policy, and the arts.