The Canadian PM dissolves Parliament. Now what?

I saw this CNN article that was originally headlined with “Canadian Prime Minister dissolves Parliament.” To me, that headline reads as though there has been some sort of coup in our northern neighbors, yet the article is quite calm in explaining that elections will be held in October.

So, how does this work? Can the PM just call for elections whenever he/she wishes? Isn’t the PM also a member of parliament him/herself? How does someone elected by Parliament remain in office if the Parliament is no more? Does everyone in Parliament now go home and begin campaigning? What if they weren’t financially prepared for this enormous cost? Are elections scheduled at regular intervals or can the PM just call them whenever he/she wishes? The articles says that the PM asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament. What if she refused? Can she say, “Steve, this isn’t really the time for these political shenanigans. You’re just going to have to deal with the parliament you have.”? Once the new Parliament is seated, could Harper lose his spot as PM? Doesn’t he also need to go home and campaign?

I do admire the brevity of the whole thing. We Americans still have two months’ of campaigning to endure. The Canadians get this sprung upon them and they’re done in a few weeks.

The timing of the election is a matter for the Prime Minister. The PM can ‘ask’ the Governor-General, as the representative of ‘Her Majesty The Queen In Right Of Canada’ to dissolve Parliament. A refusal has happened once, in 1926, when General Byng refused Mackenzie King’s request.
Once the request has been granted all MPs cease to be MPs and become merely candidates.
The PM (and his Cabinet) continue to hold office as a Minister of the Crown, not as an MP, until after the election, when he tenders his government’s resignation and ‘advises’ the G-G to send for whichever party leader has an overall majority in the House of Commons, or, if no one has, the largest party, and ask him to try to form a government.

Incidentally, there is a law on the books(passed by the current government) providing for fixed election dates every 4 years, but without a Constitutional amendment it’s toothless, as the upcoming election shows.

Link to YouTube video on dissolving parliament.

Sorry. No one should have clicked on that. Anyway, there’s a related thread in Great Debates.

The executive (PM + Cabinet ministers) are members of the party holding the most seats in the House of Commons (Legislature). There are currently over 300 seats. So bills are introduced by the government to the house to be voted in. Some votes, such as the budget, are effectively votes of the House’s confidence in the executive. These are confidence votes and typically budgets and large scale pieces of legislation are the kinds of bills we’re talking about.

For a majority situation where the Executive is drawn from the party holding a majority of seats there is basically no way to lose a confidence motion.

For minority situations it is very possible. It’s also possible that the PM finds there is no agreement amongst the various parties and so asks the Governor General to dissolve parliament so a new government can be formed.

No the GG basically can not disregard the PM’s request.
No we don’t vote for the PM, we vote for a Member of Parliament affiliated with a party who’s leader is potentially the PM
No we don’t use proportional representation and BG will most likely pipe up about that.

Parliament consists of Members for each riding, who are determined by a first past the post election by the voters in that riding. The Prime Minister is whoever can command the confidence of Parliament (i.e., win a vote that matters) - in practice this is usually the leader of the party with the most seats, though in cases of minority governments it may be the leader of a coalition of smaller parties. Party leaders are chosen by the members of the party (not the MPs, but the general party membership) by whatever means that party chooses to use.

By convention, the PM and all other cabinet ministers must have a seat in Parliament, though there is strictly speaking no legal requirement that this be the case. Should the leader of the winning party lose his/her seat in a general election, the usual practice is for a party stalwart in a safe seat to resign and have the party leader obtain the seat in a byelection. “Convention” in parliamentary systems might not have the force of law, but it’s not politically possible to flout it to any substantial extent.

Nominally all government actions are carried out in the name of the Crown, by the Queen’s representative the GG. However, in all but highly unusual cases the GG acts solely on the advice of the Prime Minister. The only way the GG could refuse to dissolve Parliament and set an election date would be if there were some other prospective PM who might command the confidence of Parliament - for example, if the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois had agreed to form a coalition, which would give them a working majority. In that case the GG could decline Harper’s request to dissolve Parliament and ask Stephane Dion to form a government. (Note that while the numbers would make this feasible, there’s no way in hell that the Libs and the Bloc would cooperate in this way, so it’s a moot point.)

During the election campaign, Harper and his cabinet remain in office - note that the positions of Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister are separate things. Upon dissolution, there is no sitting Parliament, but the Cabinet remains as the executive until the new government is sworn in following the election.

The PM can call an election whenever he wishes (i.e., the GG is bound to grant any request to dissolve Parliament), but must obtain a renewed mandate within 5 years. It is generally seen as grasping and desperate to run right to the end of the 5 year period, so the usual practice is to go back to the polls at around the 4-4.5 year mark. In the past decade the Conservatives (in the previous incarnations as the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties) complained bitterly about the then-ruling Liberals calling snap elections at earlier points in their mandates because the timing was not good for the Conservative election prospects. They thus passed a legally toothless law setting fixed election dates, which they are now ignoring because an election now is favourable to their election prospects.

Well, in many ways the parliamentary elections are more analogous to US Congressional elections. Except in a few districts, most people don’t pay much attention to those races until a few weeks before – well, ok, a couple of days before – well, all right, most people don’t pay much attention to those at all.

The PM only has to resign if his party loses the election. If the PM’s part is returned with a ,majority, or a working minority in the House of Commons, the PM doesn’t resign. He will re-shuffle the Cabinet to take into account changes in his party’s representation in the House, but the PM doesn’t resign and get re-appointed.

No, that’s the House of Commons. Parliament consists of Her Majesty the Queen, the Senate, and the House of Commons: Constitution Act, 1867, s. 17.

Of course, in practice the real political power rests solely with the House of Commons, but it’s important to get the terms right for our inquiring American Doper friends. :slight_smile:

Interesting. I’ve always assumed the only reason to call for election before due date was expediency (sitting government thinks it has a best shot at winning the election right now than ten months later, for instance) and that holding until the end of the parliament’s mandate would hence have been perceived as confidence rather than desperation.

Is this negative perception of waiting until the end of the mandate true in other parliamentary systems, like the UK, or is it a Canadian peculiarity?

This would be perceived negatively in the UK as well - any government that held on to the very last minute of their 5 years before calling an election would be seen in a desperate light.

As it’s up to a sitting government when to have Parliament dissolved and set the date of a general election, they generally choose a time, generally in the last 2 years of their 5 year mandate, when things are looking good for them. Any government that holds on for the full 5 years is likely doing so because there was no time in the last 2 years of their mandate when they thought they could win the election.

I believe it’s seen as better to renew your mandate for another possible 5 years after 3-4 years when things are looking good rather than wait another 12 months and be forced into an election when things could well be looking bad. Of course, it’s a balancing act, but as the current financial crisis is proving, much of the concerns of regular voters aren’t fully in the control of the people the voters think are in control.

As in Canada, the average time between general elections in around 4 years.


*Insert from British politics:- *John Major’s government went right to the wire in 1997, in the hope that the polls would turn his way (they didn’t). Jim Callaghan’s government fell on a confidence vote in March 1979, when October was the latest he could have gone on until. Callaghan was subsequently criticised for not having gone to the country the previous autumn before a wave of winter strikes which caused the labour unions (and by extension the Labour party which was seen as their handmaiden) to become unpopular.

This is just fascinating to me. In the US, we consider the government as a constant even though the players may change. In a few months, the man who is the president will leave, but the government will go on with someone new in the executive branch. There will also be new congress members and one third of the senate stands for re-election. In spite of the cries of “change” lately, we don’t really see an election as the complete reinventing of the government.

So, Harper’s dissolving the Parliament at this time is a normal thing and not a coup. I find it interesting that politicians can call for an a election when they think it will be to their advantage, or avoid elections when they see themselves at a disadvantage. What does a politician do when he/she needs to pass a measure that may be unpopular but necessary? An example would be a tax increase. Here politicians push through tax increases and other unpleasantness early in their terms so that they are “forgotten” by the time the election rolls around.

In Canadian politics, the most recent “close-to-the-wire” election was in 1993. The deeply unpopular Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney resigned two and a half months before the statutory end of his term; Kim Campbell, his successor, didn’t have nearly enough time to turn things around for the PC party before the election. The PCs went from 151 seats in the House of Commons to two.

Is the Canadian electoral system “first pass the post”, like in the UK? That would be the only explanation I could think of for a major party collapsing in such a way.

Yes. It’s directly descended from the UK system, and I believe that UK laws from before Canadian independence evolved are precedents for Canadian laws. Except in Quebec. But Spoons or other Canadian law Dopers could correct me on that.

The “government” in the sense that Drum God is mentioning sounds more like the Ministries–the civil service–to me. Governments may change, but the civil service keeps rolling along. Unless it gets rearranged, of course. But that requires action by a government, and is not automatic when a new government arrives.

Yes (as mentioned by Gorsnak above.) The popular vote of the PC party still went down quite a bit, though — from 43% in 1988 to 16% in 1993.

Pluralities are usually all that’s required to form the government in Canada — over the last twenty years, there have been as many as five parties at once who’ve captured a significant chunk of the popular vote. Majorities are quite rare; the last time a party got a majority of the votes in a federal election was in 1984, when the not-yet-deeply-unpopular Brian Mulroney managed to capture 50.03% of the popular vote. Before that, it was 1958, when John Diefenbaker got about 53%.

Part of the collapse was due to conservatives in western Canada splitting off from the Progressive Conservatives to form the Reform Party, and to some Quebec nationalists who had been sitting as PC’s forming the Bloc Quebecois. Reform and the Bloc picked up a great many of the formerly Tory seats in the 93 election.

He will defy his party to vote against it if they dare, and then see the government fall. In practice he may have to make some concessions to keep enough of them on board.
In British politics (and, I imagine, Canadian politics which inherited much the same system) failure to carry a flagship policy through the House will usually cause the government to resign and precipitate fresh elections. Thus, refusing to vote for your party’s proposals is like a nuclear bomb - it has a high devastation value and it only works once.
Although the Prime Minister’s ability to pick his moment is theoretically a great advantage, in practice various milestones on the political horizon tend to limit his room for manoeuvre - so much so that most political journalists here were able to accurately predict the date of the last election over a year in advance.

Somehow, no one has mentioned what I consider the most significant difference between the US and Canada. In the US, each representative and each senator is, in effect, a political party. The only way a congressman can be nominated is by winning a primary and there he is on his own. Once nominated, he is the nominee unless he dies or resigns the nomination (very rare). In Canada, each riding has an association and the association “nominates” a candidate, but he is not the nominee until confirmed by the party leader (the PM in waiting). But the party leader can–and occasionally does–refuse to confirm the nomination and has complete freedom to substitute his own candidate. He can even withdraw a confirmation and substitute his own candidate late in the campaign. The inevitable result of this is that his party has complete control of his vote. Let him cross the party leader even once and he might not be the party’s candidate the next time. In practice, he will usually be given the chance to apologize and be given one more chance (on the first offence). If the members of a PM’s party contributed to a loss of confidence motion, the parliament would be dissolved and they would not be candidates for the ensuing election (at least not for that party). The result is that a PM of a majority party (and it is historically unusual not to have a majority government) is essentially a dictator. This results, say, in the imposition of medicare, when the PM decides it is a good idea, but can also result in bad decisions, such as the current government’s virtual destruction of the CBC as a good radio station.

Of course it is not so simple as that. The PM has to retain the confidence of the party. In practice this means something like an 80% (or an absolute minimum 75%) approval vote at the annual party convention. Still, a supperannuated bigot cannot block vital legislation the way it always happens in the US. (I was thinking of the subsidies to alternate energy that will disappear at the end of the calendar and whose reauthorization has been blocked by one committee chair. In New York, one state congressman prevented the city from instituting congestion pricing and caused the city to forgo a half billion dollar subsidy to do so.)