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Contempt, Coalition, and Confidence:
Confusion about Government in Canada

© John Keith 2011

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3. The Canadian system of government, from the bottom up

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On election day, voters elect their Member of Parliament to represent their riding in Ottawa. The leader of the political party which has the most MPís in the House of Commons becomes the Prime Minister. If this political party has more than half of the seats in the commons, it is a majority government, but if the party which has the most MPís has less than half of the seats, it is a minority government.

It is very important to understand that although the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are very powerful, they are not ďall powerfulĒ. They only govern with the support of the House of Commons. Through questions, debates, and reviews, the House holds the government accountable. This is the basis of democracy in Canada: responsible government. The Prime Minister and Cabinet are responsible to the House of Commons.

If the House finds that the government is not doing its work in a manner acceptable to the majority of Members of Parliament, then it is said to have lost the confidence of the House. Once a non-confidence motion is passed, the government falls, and usually an election is called. However, if another political party shows that it has the confidence and support of the House, it will be asked by the Governor General to form a government. Another possibility is that a coalition government is formed. This means that members of the new cabinet are selected from all of the political parties which form the coalition. This has happened a number of times in Canada, and famously Stephen Harper himself offered in 2004 to form a coalition government with the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois.

In short, the voters elect their representatives, their Members of Parliament, to the House of Commons, and the party that has the most MPís forms the government. In a minority government situation, the party with the most seats in the House has less than half of the MPís, but it still forms the government. If it loses the confidence of the House, then either an election is called or another party that does have the support of the House can form the government. If the party forming this next minority government appoints MPís from other political parties to be cabinet ministers, it is called a coalition. In all of these situations, no matter who forms the government or how they do it, parliament is still supreme. Any Prime Minister and Cabinet are responsible to the House of Commons.

Letís look again at our initial questions.


1. Confusion about Government in Canada
2. Government from the top down
3. Government from the bottom up
4. Confidence, Coalitions, and Contempt

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