The Prime-Minister of Canada is the single most powerful person in the country. The Prime-Minister exercises near-dictatorial powers over government, law, finance, the economy and the military, through a combination of 40 years of power centralization, loopholes in the various Acts that makeup the Canadian constitution, and a passive electorate who have lost faith in democratic institutions. As the world’s fifth richest country and the third biggest exporter of natural resources, the power of the Prime-Minister of Canada shouldn’t be underestimated.
The position of the Prime-Minister of Canada is an important one. Technically the PM is only the head of government, and the British Monarch is the head of state, but over the past century the role of the Monarch, and their representative in Canada the Governor-General, has dwindled while the powers of the PM has grown. Today the Prime-Minister is responsible for making laws, enforcing laws, creating the national budget, managing the banks and the economy, signing trade deals, declaring war, handling foreign affairs, appointing judges and Senators and a thousand other myriad responsibilities. On top of all of this, the PM is also responsible for the leadership and direction of his/her own political party and the all the politicking of parliamentary democracy.
Those are just a few of the Prime-Minister’s job functions. In all, today the Prime-Minister of Canada is responsible for 3,100 different jobs! That’s a mighty lot of responsibility!
It wasn’t always thus. Originally the Prime-Minister was just an afterthought. There is no mention of a Prime-Minister in the Canadian constitution. The Governor-General represented the reigning monarch in Canada and acted as the executive head of state. Parliament was the legislative body and the Supreme Court of Canada was the judicial. Party politics meant that the party that won the most parliament seats in any election tended to dominate the legislature, and they naturally rallied around their leader. As this leader gained more and more influence, he was named as the Prime-Minister, or “First among equals” and was given the task of representing Parliament to the monarch. As the size of Canada grew in the late 19th Century to encompass 3 oceans and everything in between, the Prime-Minister found himself with more and more responsibilities.
The two world wars thrust Canada into a prominent role in the British Empire, and to execute the wars efficiently Parliament granted Canada’s Prime-Ministers (first Robert Borden in WWI and then MacKenzie-King in WWII) with more and more executive powers. London changed the role of the Governor-General to a more symbolic one, acting on the “advice” of the Canadian PM (or, more realistically, simply becoming the channel through which the PM imposed his will).
Nevertheless, through most of these turbulent years the Prime-Minister, although now a very powerful figure in Canadian politics and the recognized head of state if not the official one, still answered to Parliament. Parliament controlled the laws, bills, budgets and activities of the Prime-Minister. All of that changed in the late 1960’s when Pierre Trudeau became Prime-Minister and aggressively centralized power into the Prime-Minister’s office in his vision of a “just society” and unified Canada that included Quebec.
Pierre Trudeau nationalized energy with his National Energy Program, creating the Petro-Canada crown corporation and establishing himself as the man who would appoint the heads of all of the government’s entitites. He was a strict disciplinarian and enforced caucus obedience through vicious party whips. Until Trudeau MP’s in Parliament had exercised a relatively fair amount, if diminishing, of freedom in voting. Not so anymore. The free vote in Parliament was abolished and caucus members of all parties were henceforth forced to vote along party lines. This one change, along with the changes to the role of the Governor-General, suddenly gave the Prime-Minister immense power. With a majority of seats in Parliament and strict party discipline, the Prime-Minister was suddenly able to control every aspect of the federal system.
With great power comes great responsibility, and the Prime-Minister has several offices to delegate these responsibilities to. The first is the Federal Cabinet, made up of sitting MP’s chosen by the PM to represent various branches of government, such as the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Defense. The Prime-Minister also has the PMO, or the Prime-Minister’s Office, where executive decisions and party decisions are made. The PMO is staffed by non-elected officials loyal to the Prime-Minister, and is responsible for things such as managing appointees (like Senators, heads of Crown Corporations, etc), coordinating with the party executive, keeping caucus in line and controlling the budget and schedule of the Prime-Minister. The PMO is also responsible for press releases, meetings, travel and other public events the Prime-Minister may be involved in. The PMO is a highly-partisan office and one of the most powerful offices in the country.
The PMO has always existed although it was usually just meant to provide aides to the Prime-Minister. In 1968 Trudeau enlarged the PMO to make it the main executive office of the government, and subsequent Prime-Ministers, particularly Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper, have centralized so much political power into the office that it is nearly a separate government entity, albeit one not answerable to the voters.
Today the Prime-Minister is the most powerful person in Canada. The Canadian Prime-Minister exercises more personal power than any other western democratic leader, making even the US President blush! With a first-past-the-post voting system, strict party discipline enforced by party whips, a castrated Governor-General and the all-powerful PMO, the Prime-Minister of Canada is a dictator in all but name, whose only opportunity to be kicked out of office comes once every four years at election time.