Dear Sir or Madame,
Today is the first day of our week long look at the recent election in the United States. We are beginning with a look at how the American Republic differs from Canada’s Constitutional Monarchy. We will pay particular attention to one aspect that people are often confused by: what is the difference between the Prime Minister and the President, anyway?
The key difference between the two systems is where the executive powers lay. Executive powers are how laws are enacted after they are written. Whichever body or person possesses executive powers appoints the heads of government agencies, judges, and the group of advisers commonly known in both countries as the Cabinet. In Canada, these powers are all technically held by the Queen, and through her the Governor General.1 In practice, they are exercised by the Prime Minister. In the United States, the same powers are given to the President.2 The President signs all bills passed by Congress into law, and only a two thirds majority can overrule their veto.3 The Governor General must also give what is known as “royal assent” to legislation, and cannot be overruled by Parliament.4 However, in practice this power is never exercised. Both the Queen (and by extension the Governor General)5 and the President6 have control over the military.
On paper, the two systems have many similar characteristics. All legislation must pass through two houses. In the United States, Congress is the umbrella term used to refer to both both houses, the House of Representatives (with more members from more populous states), and the Senate (with equal representation per state).7 The Canadian equivalents are the elected House of Commons, and unelected Senate, collectively called Parliament.8 In both the American and Canadian systems, once the houses pass a bill into legislation, it moves to the executive for ratification before becoming law. But despite these similarities, Canada’s Constitutional conventions (which we talked about before) have a profound effect on the balance of power.
If the Queen or Governor General is our equivalent to the American President in executive terms, what is the Prime Minister’s role and why are they the leader of the country? The office of Prime Minister exists as a constitutional convention in both Canada and the UK. The leader of the party with the most elected seats in the House of Commons holds the Prime Minister’s office. They are ceremonially appointed by the Governor General, and the Governor General is required to “take the advice” of this first Minister in making appointments and giving royal assent to bills.9 In practice this “advice” is purely ceremonial and the Prime Minister has control of the process. This results in more concentrated power in the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Prime Minister is head of both the legislative and executive branches of government, so has more direct control than the President.
This is only a very brief overview of the major differences and similarities in the legislative and executive branches between our two countries. There are many more differences that exist between our Constitutions. We would encourage our readers to go out and read both documents, and pay close attention to how both systems work. Neither one is perfect, so comparing and contrasting them can be a useful way to figure out what might be better.
Your Humble and Obedient Servants,
1Constitution Act, 1867 (UK), 30 & 31 Vict, c 3, ss 11, 14, and 96-98, reprinted in RSC 1985, Appendix II, No 5.
2United States Constitution 1787, Article 2, s 2(2).
3Ibid, Article 1, s 7(2).
4Supra, note 1, s 55.
5Ibid, s 15.
6Supra, note 2, Article 2, s 2(1).
7Ibid, Article 1 s 1-3.
8Supra, note 1, ss 17, 22, and 37.
9Elise Hurtubise-Loranger, “Constitutional Conventions”, Topical Information for Parliamentarians (Library of Parliament, 11 Jul 2006), online: <www.lop.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/TeachersInstitute/ConstitutionalConventions.pdf>.