HouseofCommonsOn October 19, 2015, when you cast your ballot in Canada’s 42nd general election, you will not vote for the Prime Minister of Canada. You will not vote for a party leader or even for a particular party.

No, on October 19, you will vote only for the Member of Parliament [MP] for your riding.

Once the Members of Parliament for each riding have been determined at the ballot box, the Governor General will then invite a Member of Parliament — typically, the one who has the support of a majority of the Members of Parliament — to form a government.

This means:

  • A Member of Parliament does not become Prime Minister because she leads or belongs to the party that earned the largest percentage of the popular vote.
  • A Member of Parliament does not become the Prime Minister because she leads or belongs to the party which forms the largest block of MPs in the House of Commons.
  • A Member of Parliament becomes the Prime Minister, only if s/he earns the support of a sufficient number of the other MPs in the House of Commons, whether they belong to his or her party or not.

Why is this important to emphasize?

It seems likely, at this point, when the ballots and the dust settle on October 19, that the majority of MPs who win in their ridings won’t belong to any one party. Party flacks, pundits, and MPs will then try to tell a story that justifies why their party leader should rightfully be asked by the Governor General to be Prime Minister and form a government. All of that sound and fury will be irrelevant: any MP who earns the support of a sufficient number of other MPs (typically, a majority) is entitled to be Prime Minister.

Moreover, party allegiances are fundamentally and constitutionally irrelevant. It is perfectly right and just for any number of MPs to cooperate and give their support to any other MP, entitling that MP to be Prime Minister and to form a government, whether all the MPs belong to the same party or not. The voters elect MPs to make exactly this kind of decision on behalf of the people of his or her riding. Formal and informal coalitions in the House of Commons can and should determine who becomes Prime Minister and who forms a government. A political party is, essentially, just one such coalition.

Looking beyond the election, it’s important to remind ourselves that the Prime Minister is entitled to govern on behalf of the Governor General only because s/he has the support of other MPs in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, party staff, MPs, party leaders, and the media tend to obscure this fact and often speak as if the political power in our parliamentary system flows from the party leader to his or her MPs. This is a perverse inversion of how our parliamentary system is meant to work. The constitution, for example, does not even recognize the existence of political parties. They only received formal recognition in our electoral laws in 1970.

Not surprisingly, then, it was right around this time that unelected and partisan political operatives began to centralize and consolidate power in the Office of the Prime Minister and, eventually, reduced MPs to the status of customer sales representatives for his or her party. This consolidation of power, which began with the Liberals and was perfected by Stephen Harper, has broken our parliamentary democracy. Our democracy will be restored only when our Members of Parliament exercise their political independence and free themselves from the dominance of unelected party staff and insiders.

You can help jumpstart this process by learning more about the candidates in your riding and their policy positions. If you get the chance, ask him or her what s/he will do personally to restore the effectiveness of the House of Commons. If he or she simply parrots the party line or the talking points of the party leader, s/he is unlikely to act independently once s/he is elected. In other words, s/he is unlikely to work to restore our democracy, which we are on the edge of losing forever. If that’s the case, s/he does not deserves your vote or support.

10 thoughts on “Reminder: You Don’t Vote For The Prime Minister. Ever.

  1. Hey Sterling

    I’m assuming when you write “Our democracy will be restored only when our Members of Parliament exercise their political independence and free themselves from the dominance of unelected party staff and insiders,” I’m assuming you mean “money” instead of the euphemism “unelected party staff and insiders.”

    Stephen Harper’s tenure is just a control-obsessed crossroads on this path. And there is no evidence he plays the game meaner than any other PM during the past 40 years, or ever for that matter. His fear of and disgust with transparency simply makes him an accessible punching bag.

    But that’s not your point is it? You’re advocating for systemic change right? You want politicians to have the courage to effect progressive changes, n’est-ce pas Sterling?

    My member of Parliament in Ottawa Centre is Paul Dewar. He’s been the incumbent since the 2006 election. He’ll run again in the upcoming election and he’ll win again. He runs on the platform of speaking truth to power.

    But he accomplishes very little, in fact nada in terms of systemic change because he is a modern politician, pragmatic, good at horse trading and absolutely powerless (and seemingly fearful) in the face of money politics. He operates only within his power structure and has never put his ass on the line for a status-quo shaker.

    If we are to achieve any semblance of a restoration of the “effectiveness of the House of Commons,” it will take something far more radical and stability shaking than talking to MP candidates about again becoming democratically representative. And the only important question you have to ask is of yourself, “do I honestly want things to change, and if so, what am I willing to give up to get it?”

    Mike Levin

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike!

      Money is, of course, important. You are very right to flag its relevance. One of the main functions of a political party is, after all, to raise the funds needed for an election.

      So, yes, the influence of unelected staff and the influence of money are closely interrelated but, I think, they are, ultimately, distinct issues. A course of action that addresses one might not necessarily address the other.

      At this point, my ambitions are much more modest than you suspect. I’m really only hoping to remind people how are electoral system is meant to work.

      As far as systematic change goes, however, I think I may have much more faith than you in small, but meaningful changes. The longing for total revolution shouldn’t distract us from the possibility of meaningful and achievable day-to-day fixes.

      1. Total revolution is not possible. At least I sure wouldn’t want to see it, and have to give up the lottery win that being born white, middle-class Canadian has delivered to me. Small meaningful changes, on the ground, are the only chance. But without a systemic shift in thinking, small meaningful changes disappear like tears in the rain. That thinking used to come from politicians. Now it doesn’t. So where will it come from?

        1. I scooped the Globe editorial team. 🙂

          Of more interest to you, Mike, they promise to offer some ideas on reform in an editorial next week.

          “Any insubordination is … viewed as a failure on the part of members of Parliament to “embrace” their status as minions of the executive – a complete distortion of how our system is meant to work.”

  2. Absolutely right, and this means that voting based on national trends can subvert your purpose.

    To support Mulcair as PM requires more NDP seats, and not more NDP votes scattered across the country. To support Trudeau likewise requires more Liberal seats. To support either requires fewer Conservative seats. Vote swapping can accomplish all three ends.

    And no, it’s not a form of “strategic” voting. Vote swaps are peer to peer, and no one tells you how to vote, nor what “strategy” to employ. That’s up to you in who you swap with and why.

    1. Hi Craig,

      Thanks for sharing the links. Vote swapping will be a good choice for some people.

      Personally, I can’t and wouldn’t vote for any Liberal who voted for C-51 or any candidate who parrots the party line on why they voted for the bill.

      I explain why here:

      If people want to get really hard-nosed and tactical about defeating the Conservatives, they should figure out if they have any friends in the handful of Ontario ridings that will decide who will form the next government. If people can use their personal influence to sway people in those ridings, it could make all the difference.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and share your thoughts. It’s always appreciated.

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