Reminder: You Don’t Vote For The Prime Minister. Ever.

Posted on August 19, 2015


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.