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Role of the Prime Minister of Canada

Role and Responsibilities of the Canadian Prime Minister

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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper With U.S. President Obama

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper With U.S. President Obama

Alex Wong / Getty Images

Updated: 06/05/2014

The prime minister is the head of government in Canada. The Canadian prime minister is usually the leader of the political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons in a general election. The prime minister may lead a majority government or a minority government. Although the role of prime minister in Canada is not defined by any law or constitutional document, it is the most powerful role in Canadian politics.

Prime Minister as Head of Government

The prime minister of Canada is head of the executive branch of the Canadian federal government. The Canadian prime minister provides leadership and direction to government with the support of a cabinet, which the prime minister chooses, the prime minister's office (PMO) of political staff, and the privy council office (PCO) of non-partisan public servants who provide a focal point for the Canadian public service.

Prime Minister as Cabinet Chair

Cabinet is a key decision-making forum in Canadian government.

The Canadian prime minister decides on the size of cabinet and selects cabinet ministers - usually members of parliament and sometimes a senator - and assigns their department responsibilities and portfolios. In selecting the members of cabinet, the prime minister tries to balance Canadian regional interests, ensures an appropriate mix of anglophones and francophones, and makes sure that women and ethnic minorities are represented.

The prime minister chairs cabinet meetings and controls the agenda.

Prime Minister as Party Leader

Since the source of power of the prime minister in Canada is as leader of a federal political party, the prime minister must always be sensitive to the national and regional executives of his or her party as well as to the grassroots supporters of the party.

As party leader, the prime minister must be able to explain party policies and programs, and be able to put them into action. In elections in Canada, voters increasingly define the policies of a political party by their perceptions of the party leader, so the prime minister must continuously attempt to appeal to a large number of voters.

Political appointments - as senators, judges, ambassadors, commission members and crown corporation executives - are often used by Canadian prime ministers to reward the party faithful.

Role of Prime Minister in Parliament

The prime minister and cabinet members have seats in Parliament (with occasional exceptions) and lead and direct Parliament's activities and its legislative agenda. The prime minister in Canada must retain the confidence of the majority of the members in the House of Commons or resign and seek a dissolution of Parliament to have the conflict resolved by an election.

Due to time constraints, the prime minister participates in only the most important debates in the House of Commons, such as the debate on the Speech from the Throne and debates on contentious legislation. However, the prime minister does defend the government and its policies in the daily Question Period in the House of Commons.

The Canadian prime minister must also fulfill his responsibilities as a member of parliament in representing the constituents in his riding.

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