In Australia we no longer have a democracy, we have an elected dictatorship. We elect a political party one day every three years and the rest of the time, it dictates to us. - Sir Marcus Oliphant, Governor of South Australia from 1971-1976.
There have been various queries in my keyword search activity from people looking for explanations of minority vs. coalition vs majority government, and so I decided to write a brief post explaining the different types of government.
In parliamentary systems, such as the UK and Canada and many other countries, the head of state and the head of government are two separate offices. Often, the head of state is a mostly ceremonial position. In parliamentary systems, the people do not elect the head of government directly. He or she is the leader of the party which ends up forming the government following an election.
Different types of government can emerge in a parliamentary system.
Majority government occurs when a single party or a coalition of parties commands a majority of seats in the legislative body. For example, the Canadian House of Commons has 308 seats, and in the 2 May 2011 election, the Conservative Party won 166 seats, a comfortable majority. This is a single-party majority government. Single-party majority governments are most common in countries that use First-past-the-Post (FPTP). They occur more rarely in countries which use some form of proportional representation (PR). However, majority government can also be achieved through coalitions of two or more parties. This form of majority government is more common in countries that use PR. What is important to understand is that whether the majority is formed by one party or a coalition of parties, it holds a majority of seats in the legislative body.
As stated above, in countries that use some form of PR, one party winning a majority of seats does not happen often. In countries that use FPTP, however, single-party majority is the more common outcome. However, even in countries using FPTP, elections will result in no party winning a majority of seats. The British call this a “hung parliament”. Canadians typically refer to it as a “minority parliament”. Countries where this is the usual outcome simply call it an election result or a parliament. Following such an outcome, it is up to the parliament elected to determine which party, or group of parties, can work together to form a government that will command the confidence of the House.
In Canada, hung parliaments have traditionally resulted in single-party minority government. Single-party minority government is when a party governs on its own, even though it does not have a majority in the House. It depends on other parties to support key pieces of legislation, such as the Budget bill. This support is often sought on an issue-by-issue basis. For example, one party might support it on the Budget in exchange for the inclusion of specific tax cuts or other measures, but a different party will offer the needed support on a different piece of legislation. As long as other parties support it on key votes (called Confidence bills), it continues to govern. If, however, the party loses the confidence of the House, the government will fall.
Another option is multi-party minority government, either as coalition (see the Netherlands 2010) or a less-formal arrangement. A party may reach some sort of agreement with another party (or parties) which will allow it to govern for a specific period of time with the guaranteed support of the other party (or parties), but these parties will still not command a majority of the seats in the legislature. In other instances, they may end up commanding a majority of the seats, but it still won’t be a majority government. For example, in 1985, in the Canadian province of Ontario, the Liberal Party and the NDP signed an accord that would see the NDP support the Liberals for two years, in exchange for the Liberals advancing some key NDP policies during that time. Together the two parties did command a majority of seats in the Ontario Legislative Assembly, but it wasn’t officially a majority government. The NDP weren’t part of the government; it was a Liberal minority government, but with a formal agreement of support for two years from the NDP (see this post for more information about the Liberal-NDP Accord).
Contrast this to the May 2010 election in the UK which resulted in a hung parliament. In that case, two parties, the Conservatives (307 seats) and the Liberal Democrats (57 seats), opted to form a formal coalition government. A coalition differs from an accord between two (or more) parties because the parties forming the coalition will be represented in the government. In the case of the UK, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, is the Prime Minister, and Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, is the Deputy Prime Minister. There are five Liberal Democrats serving in cabinet, and many more serving as ministers of state (junior ministers). The combined Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats add up to a majority of the seats in the UK House of Commons (364 of the House of Commons’ 650 seats), and so the Coalition is a majority government, but one made up of two parties.
As previously stated, coalitions are very common in countries that use proportional representation since it is difficult for a single party to win a majority of seats under PR. Often these coalitions include more than two parties.
In some countries, parties join forces after fighting elections separately to form a majority government. This was the case in the UK in 2010. In other countries, notably those where coalition government is the expected outcome, some coalitions are decided before elections, which gives the parties the best chance of immediate government after the election.
There are advantages and disadvantages with each of these forms of government. A majority government, particularly a single-party majority government, is probably one of the most powerful forms of democratically-elected government. The former Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom, Lord Hailsham, in a Richard Dimbleby Lecture at the BBC in 1976, referred to it as an “elected dictatorship”. This is because a majority government determines the legislative agenda of Parliament and government bills will virtually always pass in the House of Commons as it is practically impossible for the Opposition to prevent them from passing or even amending the bills in any meaningful way. While some prefer this form of strong, decisive government, others see this as a major drawback – the unfettered power of a majority government to do as it pleases for the duration of its term in office. Coalition majority government, however, often appeals more to those who dislike single-party majority since a coalition must accommodate the various policies of its member parties, which requires each member party of the coalition to compromise on some issues to find a suitable middle-ground that will be acceptable to all members of the coalition.
A minority government, be it single- or multi-party, must be more flexible since it needs the support of another party (or parties) in order to get bills passed (and stay in power). However, minorities can also be very unstable, and often don’t manage to last for an entire term in office.
Another criticism some level at coalition government is that it can be prone to internal disharmony and fractionalism (of course, this can plague a single-party government as well). Also, in countries which use PR, depending on the form of proportional representation used, very small, fringe parties may end up playing the role of kingmaker and gain far more for their support than their vote would otherwise indicate. The “purer” the form of PR used, the more problematic this can be (if one considers this to be a problem). Israel is a good example of such a system. It has a very low minimum threshold (only 2%) for a party to gain a seat. The low vote-threshold for entry into parliament, as well as the need for parties with small numbers of seats to form coalition governments, results in a highly fragmented political spectrum, with small parties (often extremely religious ones) exercising extensive power (relative to their electoral support) within coalitions.
If you have any further questions regarding any of the above, please comment and I will attempt to answer your questions as best I can.
The United Kingdom seems to be in the middle of that sort of constructive quarrel now. Usually when I travel from Washington to Britain I move from less gloom to more gloom. But this time the mood is reversed. The British political system is basically functional while the American system is not. – David Brooks, “Britain is a picture of how politics should work,” The Guardian, 24 May 2011
One of the more curious aspects of debate in the House of Commons is that Members do not refer to each other by name, but by title, position or constituency name. This is done to guard against the tendency to personalize debate. Any Member who offends this tradition – either accidentally or on purpose – is quickly brought to order, often by other Members, as we can see in this exchange:
Mr. Ken Boshcoff (Thunder Bay—Rainy River, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak to the motion. My comments today will focus on the heart of the issue, ensuring that the government uses our taxpayer dollars to support Canadian industry.
All these cuts are hurting our regions and costing jobs for our citizens when there is no need to make the cuts. The money jar is full and overflowing, yet the Harper government continues in the heartless and shameful penny pinching.
An hon. member: You can’t say “Harper”.
Mr. Ken Boshcoff: Did I say that? I apologize immediately.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Andrew Scheer): Order, please. The member should refer to colleagues by their riding names or by their titles.
Mr. Ken Boshcoff: When I do something wrong, I appreciate the chastisement. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.
While the Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons refers to Members or calls on them to speak by their constituency, in the UK House of Commons, the Speaker refers to members by name when he or she calls on them to speak.
In general, in the UK House of Commons, the description used is “the Honourable Member for [constituency]“. However, Privy Council members (senior Ministers, past or present, and other senior Members) are “the Right Honourable Member for … “. In Canada, only the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are generally referred to as “the Right Honourable”. However, if a former Prime Minister was still sitting in the House, he or she would also be referred to as “Right Honourable”, as would any other Member with this designation.
Often in debate in the UK, the constituency is omitted and a Member will be described as “the Honourable Member who spoke last”, “the Right Honourable Lady (or Gentleman) opposite”, etc. Ministers are usually described by their titles (e.g. “the Secretary of State”, or “the Minister” or as “the Right Honourable Gentleman, the Prime Minister” etc).
Members of the same party are most often called “my Honourable (or Right Honourable) friend“:
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): Last Friday I visited Rawlins community college in my constituency and spoke to a very bright group of economics students. We discussed the fact that Governments cannot spend money they do not have. The students understood that; why does my right hon. Friend think the Opposition do not?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I know the Opposition do not like to hear about the mess they left, but let me give them some new published information about the mess they left. This is what we inherited: we are 72nd on wastefulness of Government spending, behind Kazakhstan and Cambodia; 108th on Government debt, behind Malawi, Lesotho and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Libya; and-this is the best one-on the soundness of banks, we are 133rd. Our banks, under Labour, were less sound than those in Serbia, Estonia, Madagascar and Chad. That is the record we inherited from the Opposition, and we will not tire of reminding them.
The reality of coalition government posed a bit of a dilemma at first for Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, since they were now both, arguably, on the same side, as was demonstrated during the debate on the Queen’s Speech at the opening of the new Parliament in May 2010:
Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): (…) This coalition throws up difficult problems of parliamentary etiquette, and I am the first to have to tackle them. Should I refer to my Liberal Democrat colleague as “my hon. Friend,” but that is a term reserved for members of our own parties? How about “my honourable partner”? The word “partner”, however, nowadays implies an even greater degree of intimacy than friendship, which is clearly what the Daily Mail fears, so I will stick to “my honourable ally.”
Mr. Lilley’s use of “honourable ally” didn’t catch on, and Conservative and Lib Dem MPs usually refer to each other simply as “the honourable Member” (or honourable Gentleman/Lady). However, I have noted that at times, they will also use “my honourable Friend.” The Deputy Prime Minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, fairly frequently refers to Conservative MPs that way when he is at the dispatch box. Other ministers have done the same.
This use of “honourable friend” isn’t common in the Canadian House of Commons. Members will occasionally refer to another member as “my friend”, but unlike in the UK, that usage isn’t reserved solely for members of the same party, as we can see in this exchange between an MP from the Bloc Québécois and a Conservative minister:
Ms. Louise Thibault (Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ): Mr. Speaker, does the member for Beauport—Limoilou admit—and this is my first question—that the aerospace industry in Quebec represents about 60% of this economic market? I say 60% to avoid any quibbling about whether it is 57.5% or 60%. Since she began her speech by talking about fairness—she used the words “fair spinoffs”—, why is it, talking about fair spinoffs, that her government is unable to target, in the case of a contract awarded without any call for tenders, spinoffs across Canada using known figures, such as that of 60% in Quebec? Finally, since she used those words, will she vote in favour of this motion?
Mrs. Sylvie Boucher (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and Minister for la Francophonie and Official Languages, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I thank my friend from the Bloc. Contrary to the Bloc, the Conservatives recognize the existence of a wide aerospace market. It always makes me smile when members from the Bloc hold forth and get all worked up, when they are the first to protest against any military spending. You do not want any. Maybe you should read your own party stand on military spending before criticizing a government which Quebeckers are proud to be part of. We are in power to make decisions, something that you will never be able to do.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Andrew Scheer): I would just remind the hon. parliamentary secretary to address her comments to the Chair and not directly to colleagues.
Here we see another important rule of address: a Member persistently offending against the tradition by using “you” is likely to be corrected by the Speaker. “You” refers to the occupant of the Chair alone.
Canadian MPs will also refer to other MPs as their “colleague”, or simply “the member”, but they are far less likely to refer to another MP as “honourable”. It isn’t unheard of, but it certainly isn’t commonplace as it is in the UK. A quick search through the Debates from various random days found at most maybe one or two instances of one member using the term “honourable” when referring to another member. Most days had no examples of this phrasing being used. It is even rarer for Canadian MPs to refer to fellow MPs as gentlemen or ladies – honourable or otherwise. I found a few examples from Committee hearings (dating back over ten years), but only one from recent debates:
Mr. Joe Preston (Elgin—Middlesex—London, CPC): Madam Speaker, I guess I should just point out right at the outset that this is what I dealt with all last week: a member who just would not stay within the boundaries of what he is supposed to talk about; a member who just would not stay within the boundaries of his time; and, I am sorry to say, a side of the table that just would not stay in the bounds of politeness. It was about as discouraging as it might get.
I have made plenty of mistakes in my life and I am happy to admit them. Long before politics I knew the member for Kings—Hants and found him to be a very honourable gentleman. This week he has tried my patience on that one, as to whether I really truly believe it at all any more.
While these rules and conventions might strike many as quaint, they do affect the tone of debate in the House. I have to say that I do find the UK House of Commons, even at its most raucous, which would be during PMQs, more respectful in tone than the Canadian House of Commons. This is certainly the case if we are comparing Question Period with PMQs. Debates on Bills in both Houses are much more sedate affairs (most of the time), and this is when Canadian MPs are most likely to use terms such as “friend” and “colleague”.
I admit to being somewhat surprised by some of the keyword searches that bring people to this blog. It seems that too many people have no idea where to get key information – somehow they end up on this blog rather than on the sites they should be visiting to get the information they want. Consequently, I thought I would provide links to key resources based on recent keyword search activity. I will add to this post over time, as needed. Also, if any readers know of sites that should be added to this list, please comment with the link or use the site’s contact form to let me know.
Topics: Election results Canada, Election results UK, general information regarding how elections, by-elections, referendums are carried out, election financing laws, voting procedures, etc.
Elections Canada: If you are looking for information pertaining to any aspect of elections in Canada, Elections Canada should be your first stop. It will most likely be the only site you need to visit. It provides detailed election results of current and past elections, you can even download the data in CVS format. There is extensive information explaining how the voting system works, information for voters, for candidates, for parties, information about political parties, financing regulations, research and discussion papers on all things electoral, and even back-issues of the no-longer-published Electoral Insight magazine, which provides a wealth of interesting articles on various aspects of voting and elections in Canada (some dated by this point, but nonetheless interesting). If you’re looking for information about voting procedures in a particular Canadian province or territory, Elections Canada also has links to the Elections body of each (under the heading Provincial and Territorial Election Officials).
Electoral Commission: Sadly, the UK’s Electoral Commission doesn’t have the same mandate Elections Canada does – it doesn’t oversee or administer national elections. However, it still provides statistics, analysis and reports on elections, as well as information on party financing, boundary reviews, information for voters, and much more. This should still be the first place people visit for information about elections in the UK.
Another useful elections-related site for those interested in Canadian elections is the Pundits’ Guide to Canadian Federal Elections. Any possible statistic you might want about Canadian elections (going back to 1997 only) can probably be found here.
Topics: Parliamentary privilege, parliamentary procedure
A lot of people regularly search for “parliamentary privilege” and end up on my blog. I have written a few posts dealing with some aspects of privilege, but it is a very complex subject matter, and I am hardly an expert. The usual sources for information about privilege are the procedure manuals published by various parliamentary bodies. The most famous – the “bible” so to speak, is Erskine May Parliamentary Practice, now in it’s 24th edition. Sadly, Erskine May is not available online, however, the procedure manuals of the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Parliaments are. Each has detailed sections on parliamentary privilege, and all quote Erskine May extensively.
Readers might also want to consult the UK Joint Select Committee on Privilege’s 1999 report: Parliamentary Privilege – First Report. It is somewhat dated, but still provides a thorough overview of the topic.
Topics: How Goverment works, parliamentary seating charts, number of MPs by party, general information about MPs, Committee business and reports, status of legislation before the House, Hansard, etc.
The first stop for anyone interested in any of the above, or related topics should be the official website of the parliament of the country you’re interested in. They normally have all that information and more. Here are the parliamentary websites of the countries this blog focuses on the most: Parliament of Canada, UK Parliament, Parliament of Australia, Parliament of New Zealand.
Topic: Styles of Address
Wondering how to refer to an MP, Judge, foreign dignitary, member of the Royal Family or a parliamentary secretary? The site you want is Heritage Canada’s Styles of Address. Or you could try Australia’s equivalent. And we mustn’t forget Debrett’s, the authoritative guide to addressing people.
Topic: Politicians using social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
Canada: PoliTwitter aggregates the Twitter, Facebook, blog and other feeds of any elected federal or provincial official in Canada who has any online social media presence. You can sort them by federal/provincial, by province, and by party. It allows you to see immediately what various politicians and parties are tweeting, blogging and generally discussing online. You might also want to check out TweetCommons, which does something similar.
UK: PoVoice UK does something similar, but only with Twitter activity from UK politicians. It doesn’t seem to be as extensive as PoliTwitter, for example, I can’t tell if politicians have to voluntarily add their feed to it, or how it works, exactly, but I don’t follow it and so can’t really comment that much on how useful it might be. There is also TweetMinster which follows much more than MPs.
Australia: TweetMP documents all Australian federal MPs on Twitter.
Again, if you know of a site that you think should be included on this list, please comment with the relevant information, or use the Contact form.
Once politics became a contest pitting one identity group against another, it was no longer possible to compromise. Everything became a status war between my kind of people and your kind of people. Even a small concession came to seem like moral capitulation. Those who tried to build relationships across party lines were ostracised. Among politicians, loyalty to the party overshadowed loyalty to institutions like the Senate or the House. Politics was no longer about trade-offs, it was a contest for honour and group supremacy. Amidst this partisan ugliness, public trust in government and political institutions collapsed. – David Brooks, The Social Animal (as quoted in this Guardian article)
What to call indigenous groups is intensely political in Canada, reflecting the power struggle over land, resources and government funding between these groups and the government and also among the groups themselves. Complicating the matter is a lack of consistency on naming that makes the area a minefield for non-indigenous Canadians who may not be up to date on what is and is not an acceptable term. In this way it is similar to shifting terminology in America for African-Americans. – The Economist, 19 May 2011
Liberal Democrat Voice carried an op-ed piece by Anthony Butcher arguing that the Liberal Democrats need to drop their support for the Single Transferable Vote because “the perceived complexity of AV was a significant factor in its rejection by the public. The whole concept of preferential voting has now been tainted for a generation as overly complicated” and STV is more complicated than AV.
It should be noted that Butcher is not a member (or even a supporter) of the Liberal Democrats. He is interested in electoral reform, however, and he argues that “the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens, ERS and every other organisation involved” in pushing for electoral reform need “to settle on a single electoral system that we will all present to the public”:
Once agreement has been reached, we need a long term campaign of public education and preparation. We mustn’t blunder in to the next referendum (if we are lucky enough to have one) still trying to explain what the system is or why we need it.
As for the choice of system to promote, it has to be simple – the simpler the better. It has to retain the single member constituency link. It has to be a form of proportional representation. This leaves us with the Additional Member System or the simpler top-up systems such as Total Representation or Regional Top-Up. It’s time for everyone in the reform movement to take a long look at these systems and see which one they would be happiest with, and which one will be the easiest to sell to the public.
His arguments against STV and his explanations as to why the referendum on AV failed miss certain key points, in my view. Butcher argues that apart from being too complicated, STV is also riddled with weaknesses that anti-reformers would be quick to exploit, in particular the issue of STV requiring larger constituencies which would be represented by several MPs: “Either way, do we really want to replicate the situation we have with the EU elections where hardly anyone can name a local MEP? The media would tear it to shreds.”
Regarding whether or not anyone can name a local MEP, I am not entirely convinced that this is a good argument against STV. For starters, MEPs in the UK are not elected using STV – they are elected using a regional list system with seats allocated to parties in proportion to their share of the vote. For European Parliament elections, the UK is divided into twelve electoral regions with between three and ten MEPs representing each region. I don’t know if it’s true that few people can actually name one of their MEPs, but even if it is, I would wager that the main reason few people can is that they simply don’t care who their MEPs are. Voter turnout in the UK for European Parliament elections is among the lowest, as this chart clearly shows. In the 2009 elections, only six other member countries had lower turnouts.
If over 60% of eligible voters can’t even be bothered to participate in EU elections, it’s not that surprising then that many can’t then name a single elected MEP. The claim that most can’t name a single MEP because the system used requires large constituencies represented by several MEPs implies that most voters in the UK can name their actual MP because MPs are elected using FPTP and single-member constituencies. However, a poll conducted in March 2010 before the May 2010 general election found that 44% of those surveyed couldn’t name their sitting MP and three in four voters admitted to not knowing who was standing at the May election. To me this clearly proves that it’s not the voting system that is to blame; it’s largely a reflection of an overall indifference to the European Parliament in particular, and to politics in general.
The big problem with attempts to change voting systems is the insistence on putting the matter to a referendum, as I’ve blogged about here and here. To quickly summarise, electoral reform is not a pressing issue for the vast majority of citizens – they aren’t interested and really don’t care that much. A referendum asks people who are at best indifferent to choose between a system they know and have used, and one that they’ve never experienced. How can anyone make an informed choice about which they might prefer or that they think would work best if they have direct experience of only one of the two options? They have no way of knowing if the new system really will be “too complicated”, what sort of results it will return, if it will be fairer, or how parties will act and react under the new system. When presented with a choice between a known entity and a completely unknown entity, most people will stick with the tried and true. It’s human nature.
That is why I regularly suggest implementing the new system for a fixed period of time – something like 20 years or 5 elections, to give voters a chance to use the new voting system and parties to adjust to the changes a new, more proportional system, will entail. Then have a referendum on the issue, asking people if they’d like to keep the new system or switch back to FPTP. That would be a much easier choice for people to make since they’d be voting based on experience, not guesswork, assumptions, or fears.
I do agree with Mr. Butcher that it would probably help the cause if all those in favour of electoral reform could agree on one system to promote. This could be accomplished via a citizens’ assembly which could review various voting systems and recommend one that they feel would work best for the UK. But I disagree that whatever option of electoral reform is put forward has to be “the simplest” and that it has to retain the single member constituency link. Complexity and multi-member constituencies are not the real problem here; the real problems to overcome are unfamiliarity and indifference.
How would an electorate devoid of Christians vote? – Jonathan Jones, “Conservative support to collapse at 6pm“, The Spectator, 21 May 2011
“If we believe in democracy, surely the essence of parliamentary democracy is rule by amateurs, and most governments prove that. We call on the experts to get expert views and opinions and ideas and policy and implementation, but ordinary people are elected by ordinary people to make decisions for all of us. That’s the basis of our system.” Charles Jackson “Bud” Wildman
In Westminster parliamentary systems, the cabinet is a council of ministers chaired by the Prime Minister. In some countries, the Cabinet is the senior echelon of the Ministry. The terms “Cabinet” and “Ministry” are sometimes used interchangeably, a subtle inaccuracy which can spark confusion. In Canada, all members of the Ministry are also currently members of Cabinet, but this is not always the case. In the UK, for example, not all members of the Ministry are members of Cabinet.
In the US, the Constitution states that “no person holding any office under the United States, shall be a member of either house during his continuance in office.” Accordingly, a sitting member of the U.S. Congress must resign from his or her seat in Congress to accept a Cabinet appointment. This clause also bars any member of Congress from holding an executive office that was created by law during his/her current term in Congress. Thus a US President can choose cabinet members from any walk of life, often seeking out experts in given fields from the private sector, academia, etc.
In Westminster parliamentary democracies, the Prime Minister normally chooses members of his or her cabinet from among the elected MPs, usually from his or her own party, and sometimes from the unelected upper House (either the House of Lords in the UK or the Senate in Canada). However, in Canada at least, it is permissible to choose those who are not elected to serve. Hence why ours is a government by fortunate amateurs – plucked from the obscurity of the backbenches. While amateurs, this is not to imply that those who become ministers are not talented, able individuals. Many, perhaps most, are. However, in Canada at least, many may owe their place in cabinet to factors other than skill and abilities.
There is a tradition in Canadian politics that the Cabinet be representative of the country’s regional and linguistic traditions. The Prime Minister will often look to have at least one Cabinet Minister from each province or region in Canada. This convention recognizes the fact that Canada is a federation. It is also tradition for the Prime Minister to attempt to strike an appropriate balance in Cabinet between the interests of French and English Canada; typically one-third of Cabinet Ministers are French-speaking, with the remainder being anglo- or allophones. The precise regional and linguistic makeup of a Cabinet, however, often depends on the pool of MPs elected.
It isn’t unusual for a political party to fail to win any seats in one or some provinces, or to win only a few, leaving the Prime Minister with a rather limited pool of talent from which to choose. In instances where the governing party fails to elect a single MP from a given province, the PM may choose to appoint a senator from that province to represent the province in Cabinet, or name an MP from a neighbouring province to also act as spokesperson for the province in question. In the 2006 general election, which resulted in a Conservative minority government, the Conservatives had not won any seats in or around the City of Montreal, and only 10 MPs from the entire province of Quebec. To address this, the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, appointed Montreal businessperson Michel Fortier to cabinet on February 6, the day the government took office. Fortier at that time was neither an MP nor a Senator, but Harper announced that Fortier would be appointed to the Senate, but would be expected to step down and run for a seat in the House of Commons at the general election. Fortier was appointed to the Senate on February 27. This practice is unusual in modern Canada, but there was precedent for such a practice: in 1979, former Prime Minister Joe Clark appointed Quebec Senator Jacques Flynn Minister of Justice because of his lack of representation in that province. In 1972, when Liberal Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau failed to win a single seat west of Manitoba, he appointed senators to cabinet as well.
The Conservatives had also failed to win any seats in the province of Prince Edward Island, and so Nova Scotia MP and newly-appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs also served as PEI’s representative in Cabinet.
There are other factors to consider when appointing ministers. If a new Prime Minister takes office after a leadership contest, he or she will often appoint, at the very least, his or her chief rival to a key cabinet post. Often the other leadership candidates will also be rewarded with cabinet appointments. An MP who wins a seat in a riding long held by another party, may be rewarded for that feat. In the rare instances where a coalition government takes office, the Prime Minister must find key positions for members from the other party or parties in the coalition, which can often upset members of his or her own caucus who thought they were shoe-ins for a cabinet post (and probably would have been had the party won a majority or opted to govern as a minority government rather than a coalition).
The Canadian tradition of trying to ensure regional and linguistic representation in Cabinet might strike some as ridiculous, unnecessary and unfair, since many very able MPs may be overlooked in favour of less able MPs simply because the party has an oversupply of MPs from some parts of the country and a dearth from others. However, there are others who argue that the focus on linguistic and regional representation isn’t enough, that this does not adequately address the representation of several other important social groups such as aboriginals, women and major visible minority groups. Cabinets tend to be overwhelmingly male and white.
This perceived need to have a Cabinet that reflects, at the very least, the country’s regions and linguistic traditions has yet another consequence: Canada’s cabinet is one of the largest, if the not the largest, in the democratic world. The new cabinet sworn in last week has 39 ministers. The US Cabinet currently contains 16 members, including the Vice-President. There are, in addition, six “cabinet-level officers”, none of whom has executive responsibility for any department. The British Cabinet consists of 23 ministers (one of whom is unpaid), including the Prime Minister. Five other officials attend cabinet meetings, but are not considered full members of cabinet. Neither is the Attorney General, although he sometimes attends. Germany has 16 ministers, including the Chancellor, Japan 17 ministers, including the Prime Minister, France 16 full ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 7 “ministres auprès d’un ministre” and 8 secretaries of state. Italy, 25 ministers, including the Prime Minister. Thirteen have departmental responsibility; 11 are ministers without portfolio. Australia, 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister and New Zealand has 20 ministers, including the Prime Minister, plus 8 ministers outside cabinet, some from supporting parties in the coalition. (Source)