In Westminster parliamentary systems, the prime minister is the presiding and actual head of the government and head of the executive branch. In such systems, the head of state or the head of state’s official representative (i.e. the monarch, president, or governor-general), although officially the head of the executive branch, in fact holds a ceremonial position.
What is particularly interesting, to me at least, is that in most, if not all of the countries using the Westminster system, the constitutions of those country make no mention of the position, power and status of prime ministers. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (although in the Constitution Act, 1982, a passing reference to a “Prime Minister of Canada” is added, though only regarding the composition of conferences of federal and provincial first ministers.)
Why this is interesting is because the role, importance and power of the prime minister, at least in Canada, has greatly increased in recent decades, undoubtedly due to the very fact that the constitution is silent what the role and powers of this post.
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.
Canadian PMs control the appointment of the people to fill the following positions:
- all members of his/her Cabinet who he/she may replace at any time;
- all justices of the Supreme Court of Canada;
- vacant seats in the Senate;
- all heads of Canadian Crown Corporations whom the Prime Minister may replace at any time;
- all executive positions such as the head of the Canadian Safety Transportation Board, the president of the Federal Business Development Bank;
- all Ambassadors to Foreign Countries;
- the Governor-General of Canada and provincial Lieutenant-Governors;
- plus approximately 3,100 other powerful government positions, the bulk of which the Prim Minister usually designates a member of his staff to appoint with his or her concurrence.
As well, the Prime Minister appoints the person to head the Office of the Ethics Counsellor whose job is to monitor and when necessary, to investigate, the ethical conduct of the members of Parliament including the Prime Minister to whom the Ethics Counsellor reports.
The UK Prime Minister is similarly powerful. the Prime Minister appoints (and may dismiss) all other cabinet members and ministers, and co-ordinates the policies and activities of all government departments, and the staff of the Civil Service. The PM acts as the public face and voice of Her Majesty’s Government, both at home and abroad. Solely upon the advice of the Prime Minister, the Sovereign exercises many of her statutory and prerogative powers: they include the dissolution of Parliament; high judicial, political, official and Church of England ecclesiastical appointments; and the conferral of peerages, knighthoods, decorations and other honours. The Prime Minister also chairs a number of select committees; at present the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee, the Constitutional Reform Committee, the Intelligence Services Committee and the Northern Ireland Committee. In these committees, policies may be determined; hence the Prime Minister has to be very influential in these committees.
However, it should be noted that in the UK, certain appointments have been removed from the direct control of the prime minister. The appointment of senior judges, while constitutionally still on the advice of the Prime Minister, is now made on the basis of recommendations from independent bodies. Similarly, the House of Lords Appointment Commission (HOLAC) was established by the Prime Minister in May 2000 to recommend individuals for appointment as non-party-political life peers and to vet nominations for life peers, including those nominated by the UK political parties, to ensure the highest standards of propriety.
Many political and constitutional observers warn that, in Canada at least, so much power is concentrated in the prime minister’s office that even cabinet is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Former clerk of the Privy Council, Gordon Robertson, has said that “Our concentration of power is greater than in any other government with a federal cabinet system. With the lack of checks and balances, the prime minister in Canada is perhaps the most unchecked head of government among the democracies.”
There are still, however some checks on the Prime Minister’s power. Cabinet or caucus revolts will bring down a sitting Prime Minister quickly, and even the threat of caucus revolts can force a Prime Minister out of office as happened to Jean Chrétien in 2003.
The Prime Minister is also restricted by the usually powerless Senate. The Senate can delay and impede legislation, as occurred when Brian Mulroney attempted to introduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and when Chrétien tried to cancel the privatization of Toronto Pearson International Airport. In both cases, the conflicts arose primarily because the Senate was dominated by members appointed by previous governments. Both PMs ended up “stacking” the Senate in their favour with a flurry of senate appointments in order to pass their legislation. Mulroney’s government used a constitutional provision to receive approval from the Governor General for the creation of eight new Senate seats in 1991.
Canada is one of the most decentralized of the world’s federations, and provincial premiers have a great deal of power. Constitutional changes must be approved by the provincial premiers, and they must be consulted for any new initiatives in their areas of responsibility, which include many important sectors such as health care and education.
The Supreme Court can also curtail prime ministerial power. As constitutional interpreter, the Supreme Court can invalidate government policy and force the government to either adopt a different approach, or take the somewhat controversial step of invoking the “notwithstanding clause,” something no Prime Minister has yet done.
The Constitution contains reserve powers which may be used by the Governor General against a Prime Minister. While that last occurrence of a Governor General refusing to carry out the wishes of a Prime Minister dates back to the King-Byng affair in 1925, the Governor General is legally capable of demanding that a Prime Minister step down, or can refuse to call an election.
The electorate does exert some power on the prime minister. Opinion polls, by-elections and pressure groups all contribute to electoral pressure on the person holding prime ministerial office. Still, the fact remains that in Westminster parliamentary systems, the absence of a clearly defined constitutional role has allowed the prime minister to become extremely powerful.