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Executive Powers of Prime Minister in Canada

by Suleman


Canada is a democracy in which the Prime Minister is elected by the people through an election process. Due to the mandate given to a sitting Prime Minister it is the prerogative of a Prime Minister to head the government. As such the Prime Minister is mandated to oversee the formulation of government policies including the design and implementation as well as ensuring that the government is answerable to the people of Canada who elect him/her to the crown.

Despite the fact that executive powers in Canada are constitutionally the mandate of the Canadian sovereign, the Prime Minister’s office has in the recent past continued to grow in influence and therefore makes the Canada’s Prime Minister one of the most powerful in the European Union after that of the Britain Prime Minister. In addition to the conventional administrative powers that have long been connected to Canada’s Prime Ministers, the same Prime Ministers exercise a great deal of influence over the political party that elects him/her, and while the Prime Minister is not usually his/her party’s chairman, there is ample proof that Canada’s Prime Ministers have always governed their political parties in a party For starters, the new Prime Minister, Right Honorable Stephen Harper, is highly regarded and despised in his Conservative party, where he exercises a great deal of political power and is the key force behind all the conservative strategies and roles suited to all major issues.

Executive Powers of Prime Minister in Canada

The position of the Prime Minister of Canada is quite critical, which has contributed to the current debate about whether the control of the Prime Minister is not too much.” As a matter of fact, the chief of the group with the majority of House of Commons representatives is the Prime Minister. This allows the Prime Minister to establish a cabinet that is responsible for handling the affairs of the government. The fact that Canada’s Prime Minister somehow controls the governor’s behaviour especially when it is necessary to call elections, means that the Prime Minister is more inclined to take decisions that benefit his or her own political party. Critics have seen this as a possible source of misuse of influence by the Prime Minister, given that a Prime Minister who wants to prolong the period of office will have an effect on election time to his/her benefit. The idea that the Prime Minister may still manipulate polls, while the Prime Minister does not have the authority to do so legally, is demonstrated by the fact that the Governor General seldom refuses the Prime Minister’s demands for elections.

The statutory clause for a Prime Minister to stay in government for as long as the faction of the Prime Minister has secured the polls offers a simple path for the Prime Minister to remain in control for extraordinarily long periods. This is really disadvantageous for the community particularly when the policies and leadership of the Prime Minister damage people in some way, whether socially or economically, but there is little that can be done to do away with the unpopular Prime Minister. Continuing to be in control for longer stretches presents a risk to the impartiality of the role of the Prime Minister in that it is more possible that a Prime Minister who has been in office for a very long time would misuse the office. The other problem confronting the office of the Prime Minister is the fact that he/she is forced to step down by resignation in situations when the Prime Minister has been involved or suspected of gross mismanagement or office violence.

Unfortunately, there are no checks and balances to ensure that the prime minister is going to stand aside. Usually, as experience clearly reveals, most Prime Ministers are unable to resign even though common opinion demands that they resign. This is related to the profitability of the office of the Prime Minister and the substantial forces of the Prime Ministers have access to considering their political and executive powers.  The above makes the Prime Minister one of the most powerful figures in Canada both in government and in politics.  The other source of the excessive powers seen to be enjoyed by the Prime Minister is the cabinet.  What makes the cabinet a source of political power for the Prime Minister is the fact that the Prime Minister appoints the members of the cabinet?  The fact that the Prime Minister appoints the cabinet implies that naturally the cabinet ministers owe allegiance to the Prime Minister in some way.  This really presents a source of conflict given the fact that if the cabinet members are loyal to the Prime Minister, they are very likely to act as rubber stamps for the decisions of the Prime Minister without any meaningful powers to exert the much needed control over the Prime Minister’s running of the country’s affairs.

The cabinet has a duty to objectively offer criticism to the Prime Minister where applicable to resist the moves of the Prime Minister to implement some unpopular policies or decisions. This role of cabinet is very crucial in that it can prevent catastrophic decisions which powerful politicians end up making whenever they are not well controlled.  In some other cases, the cabinet members have failed in their duty to advice the Prime Minister accordingly leading to the enactment of unpopular laws which end up being rejected by the population.  Again this failure on the part of the cabinet can be attributed to the much powers of the Prime Minister which leads to the cabinet appointees holding in reverence the Prime Minister’s wishes and at the same time making it look like in Canada, the Prime Minister’s authority is unchallengeable and unquestionable.  The other point worth noting is as far as the Prime Minister’s powers are concerned is the fact that the Prime Minister is responsible for very many executive and key appointments in Canada.

Consider this; the Prime Minister appoints the government executives, the same Prime Minister appoints members of the same cabinet which is expected to control his/her powers, the same Prime Minister is supposed to appoint all ambassadors who implement Canada’s foreign policy.  In addition the Prime Minister is tasked with the responsibility of appointing senior millitary officials of the Canadian military something, which also implies that the Prime Minister has control over military operations, expenditure as well as the running of the millitary affairs (Zolf, 2002).  The above sounds ridiculous for one man to control yet it is the case with the Prime Minister of Canada. 

There is bound to raise moral and ethical concerns about why give so much work/responsibilities while the same can be devolved to other levels of the government.  The other moral question, which comes to fore is what if the Prime Minister fails to abide by the moral standards, set by the office and decides to abuse the powers? This can have far reaching consequences for the whole country given the economic political implications that can result.

 Ethically it is not fair for one individual to have so much power.  This does not have a place in a democratic country like Canada and is a recipe for chaos.  The other issue, which comes to mind, is the fact that the responsibilities, which go along with those powers, are too many and therefore there is no way anyone can be effective.  Could this be the cause of the inefficiency and lucrative performance in some key departments of the government?  Yes, certainly the Prime Minister does not have the capacity or the time needed to handle pressing matters in all the departments effectively.

 Appointments of senior government officials have been used by politicians all over the world to gain political mileage.  In some cases, appointments to lucrative and senior positions have been pegged on loyalty to politicians. This is not an exception for the Canadian Prime Minister.  It is very likely that many government officials the Prime Minister is mandated to appoint can be used by a Prime Minister as ‘baits’ for party supporters.

In addition appointments to the government by the Prime Minister can be used to win loyalty as well as to maintain it something, which implies that for the country it is not good to have a Prime Minister who is mandated to appoint thousands of people to influential and lucrative government jobs.  The appointment powers of the Prime Ministers could also be used by ‘errant’ Prime Ministers to woo funding of political activities especially in cases whereby the appointments are reserved for wealthy business people who can contribute to political funding. Again the above dangers posed by an all-powerful Prime Minister sound as a warning towards vesting too much power on the office of the Prime Minister.  What is even more worrying is the fact that the Prime Minister’s office does not have the necessary regulatory measures, which can reign on a Prime Minister who decides to abuse state resources. The cabinet, which is supposed to make sure that the Prime Minister does not overstep his/her mandate, has become very ineffective in this role (Couture, 1998). 

Although in some cases the cabinet has succeeded in compelling a Prime Minister to resign, such incidences are few compared to the many opportunities, which have, arose in the history of Canada. But the cabinet was either unwilling to throw out a Prime Minister or they were too loyal to do it. The 2003 ouster of the then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien is a good example of a cabinet, which stood up to their calling and responsibilities and went ahead to execute their duties responsibly. The senate is the other source of authority in Canada, which is mandated with checking the Prime Minister’s powers (Ordeshook, & Shvetsova, 1997).  Just like the cabinet the senate can oppose legislations by the Prime Minister or reject some policies they deem as unfit. Through that the senate is also a good institution, which is supposed to ensure that a Prime Minister does not end up abusing office.

However the senate can sometimes become very ineffective in that role especially in case whereby the senate is mainly composed of members who are loyal to the Prime Minister. On the other hand the senate may also become in effective if the sitting members of the senate belong to other political parties other than that of the Prime Minister and therefore fails to function objectively but instead ends up fighting political wars at the expense of the economic growth and social growth of Canadians.  Therefore the degree of success a senate achieves in as far as controlling of presidential powers largely depends on how objective the senate is.

 In cases whereby the senate is infiltrated by the Prime Minister through making of appointments of those who are loyal to him/her the senate can never be as effective and therefore such a Prime Minister is very likely to continue operating at the interest of his, her party as oppose to the interests of the country (Couture, 1998). Indeed this is a dilemma which should be solved through a constitutional change to the office of the Prime Minister to make sure that the flaws which have in the past sufficed have been detected and addressed.

This will in turn pave way for an effective government free of personal influences and fully responsible to the constitution and the oath of office. It has become such a big challenge in Canada for the elected members to function because of the interference the Prime Minister either directly or through the appointees exert on most government departments. The Prime Minister’s powers in Canada have become so much that many politicians in the party level or even in the government would dread crossing paths with the Prime Minister. Although Bakvis, (2000) argues that the much powers of the Prime Minister are good for a country where the government structure is central, recent studies have shown that after all Canada may be better off without such a powerful Prime Minister. 


Other than continue to depend on the current situation whereby the Prime Minister’s duties and responsibilities are modeled alongside UK’s Prime Minister’s responsibilities, Canada should come up with better defined roles for its Prime Minister. Such roles and responsibilities must be grounded on the unique situation of Canada as well as the needs of the people not just coming up with a post for the sake of it. 

Therefore there is a need for a revision of the constitution with the aim of addressing the needs highlighted in the discussion above. Until that is done, the people of Canada shall continue to suffer poor service delivery from the office of the Prime Minister given much number of the appointments the office currently makes. A streamlining and possible reduction of those powers is likely to lead to a stable government free from individual manipulations. Changes to the office of the Prime Minister will also ensure that the cabinet as well as the senate functions more effectively and devoid of outside influences.

  • Bakvis, H., 2000. Prime minister and cabinet in Canada. an autocracy in need of reform? Journal of Canadian Studies. v.35 (4) 61-87
  • Couture, C. 1998.Paddling with the current: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Étienne Parent, liberalism and nationalism in Canada. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press. 34-56.
  • Ordeshook, P. and Shvetsova, O. 1997. Federalism and Constitutional Design- Journal of Democracy. 36-51.
  • Zolf, L. 2002, June 28.  CBC News Viewpoint.  Boxing in a Prime Minister. 12-32.

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