For many Canadians, Parliament (along with the equivalent legislatures in the provinces and territories) and parliamentary democracy are the centrepieces of government—the grand stage for democratic government in Canada. However, the media’s pre-occupation with a Question Period that lasts less than an hour each day, and the government’s excessive reliance on party discipline, seem to have distorted the ideals of parliamentary democracy.
To get a handle on the role of the legislature in Canada, it is first necessary to recall the concepts that underlie the notion of parliamentary democracy. These concepts include liberal democracy, which provides the basic rights and freedoms including elections; representative democracy, which refers to how legislators serve on behalf of the citizenry; and constitutional monarchy which embraces the traditions of Westminster parliamentary government in respect to responsible government.
Accordingly, Canada’s federal Parliament is organized as a bicameral legislature with two houses or chambers (House of Commons and Senate). Members of Parliament (MPs) are elected to sit in the House of Commons, with each MP representing a separate territorial district. On the other hand, senators are summoned (or appointed) to office by the governor general on the prime minister’s advice to represent regions, provinces, and territories, and to provide sober second thoughts of legislation. Meanwhile, all provinces and territories now have elected unicameral legislatures similar to the federal House of Commons but have acquired different names.
Of the two federal chambers, the House of Commons is the key component of the legislative process because it is democratically elected and periodically held accountable to the public, and it is also where most political leaders sit. This chamber’s position has become institutionalized through the roles played by both elected MPs and appointed bureaucratic support staff.
First, all MPs are expected to fulfill the task of serving their constituents. As well, a few MPs have additional parliamentary tasks within the legislature including those of the speaker, deputy speaker, committee chairpersons, party leaders, party house leaders, and party whips.
Each MP’s work is also augmented by support staff located both in Ottawa and the legislator’s home constituency office. A second group of appointed support staff include the independent offices that monitor the executive for the legislature or otherwise serve the legislature: Auditor General, Chief Electoral Officer, Privacy Commissioner, Access to Information Commissioner, Official Languages Commissioner, Commissioner of Lobbying, and Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner.
With these actors in place, the life of the legislature unfolds accordingly. Each session of the legislature is dominated by a major debate on the Speech from the Throne that sets the executive’s policy priorities. As well, annually, the government’s proposed budget and proposed expenditures receive thorough consideration in the House of Commons and its committees. The government is also subject to daily questions during Question Period. Bills (proposed legislation) are subject to three readings in each chamber, with detailed examination in small specialized parliamentary committees composed of MPs.
Another aspect of the legislature discussed in this chapter concerns the overall formation of government. Majority governments are the most common type of government formed in Canada, but there have also been a fair share of minority governments formed, including the most recent government following the 2019 elections. Coalition governments are even rarer, and have only been formed a handful of times at both the federal and provincial levels of government.
This chapter’s professor profile fittingly highlights Jonathan Malloy who is the past president of the Canadian Study of Parliamentary Group as well as an academic at Carleton University and who has done extensive research on Canadian Parliamentary institutions. This chapter’s debate topic is on the recurring theme of party discipline, and whether it is essential for Canadian parliamentary democracy.
By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:
- understand the structure and organization of legislatures in Canada;
- be familiar with how legislatures conduct their parliamentary business;
- identify several important differences between Canadian legislatures and those of Westminster Abbey; and
- understand how majority, minority and coalition governments are formed.