Justin Trudeau

Elections in Canada: Are We Voting in a Parliamentary Democracy or an Elected Monarchy?


Pollsters tell us many Canadians are unhappy with their government. Not just the  federal government, but governments at all levels. They report a sense of disappointment.  Candidates over-promise and then after the election, under deliver. That’s because the system concentrates power in the hands of a select few at the top. 

One pollster’s trust index suggests cratering trust in governments, with only 22 per cent saying they trust governments or politicians, compared with 40 per cent (even then, less than half) in the early days of the pandemic in May 2020.

Be an Informed Voter

How should you vote in the next election to get the kind of government you want?  Be an informed voter. Understand how your government— federal, provincial or municipal— really works in practice, not just in theory.  The sooner you understand what you are really choosing by voting for or against one of the names on your ballot the sooner you will understand how to use your one vote to try to achieve what you want it to achieve. In this post I will focus on the federal government.

The Theory

The way Canada is governed today is much more like a monarchy with courtiers than a traditional parliamentary democracy. The temporary monarch, the Prime Minister, is elected until renewed or replaced in the next election. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is the modern version of the king’s court.

Canada also has a Senate, the “chamber of sober second thought” as it has been called.  But as senators aren’t elected you can’t vote for or against them, which is why I won’t discuss the Senate here. 

In the traditional Westminster Parliamentary model theory, the House of Commons has Members of Parliament, who enact laws by majority vote.  These Members, also in theory, select the Prime Minister, who in turn appoints the members of the Cabinet.  Canada currently has 338 Members of Parliament, 39 Cabinet Ministers and, of course, only one Prime Minister.  But this theory doesn’t tell us how things actually work. Who does what?

The Practice Today

When I graduated from law school in 1971 our professors were already complaining that the Federal/Provincial legislative machine was cranking out such a volume annually that it was legislating all of us into ignorance.  Much of what I learned in law school became obsolete within five or 10 years.  Legislation enacted by Parliament has become so voluminous that virtually no one knows what it all is or where it all is. 

The statutes are often skeletal in form, but delegate authority to the cabinet or an individual minister to fill in the details by voluminous and frequently changed regulations, which are created quietly and with low visibility.  The real job of Members of Parliament is to help their constituents to deal with the Ottawa bureaucracy, as well as to be cheerleaders for their political parties.  Their role in writing and enacting our laws is primarily symbolic, as they vote for or against proposed legislation along party lines and have little or no influence over the content of regulations.

It would be wrong to believe either that Parliament actually writes the statutes, or that the cabinet or a minister actually writes the regulations.  Civil servants and outside consultants do most of the drafting, with broad policy direction from a Minister’s office staff or the PMO.  

As early as 1972, while working in a federal Minister’s office, I was personally responsible for working on laws with senior civil servants and outside consultants, and since then (until my retirement) I was sometimes retained by governments to assist in writing their laws. On such assignments I had contact with provincial premiers, deputy ministers and ministers, but no ordinary members of Parliament or of a provincial legislature.

The Concentration of Power in an Elected Federal Monarchy

Under Prime Ministers Harper and Trudeau, if not earlier, despite the proliferation of government departments and ministers heading them, most of the real governing power became centralized in the PMO.  We live in an age of executive government, where the legislative branch is largely a rubberstamp, largely controlled by the PMO and to a lesser extent, ministers, with policies implemented by the public service. 

As I have written in earlier blog posts, much of what passes as modern legislation is really “feel-good” law, which accomplishes little or nothing but is designed to make the electorate feel good about the government, to encourage it being re-elected.   Examples would include Canada’s laws on net zero emissions reduction targets, and enshrining the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law. I have analysed net-zero here and UNDRIP here.

Who really controls the content of future federal laws and how our laws are implemented?  Effective control is divided between the unelected civil service and the top ranks of the governing party (sometimes with suggestions for amendments from the Senate).  In practice, an unelected Deputy Minister or Clerk of the Privy Council or Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister may have more influence on a particular issue than almost all of the governing party’s Members of Parliament, including some of the cabinet ministers.  That is because the DMs, the Clerk and PMO staff are appointed by the Prime Minister, and will be demoted or transferred if they are disobedient.

In the British comedy Yes Minister the civil servants really ran everything, but pretended that the Minister was in charge. One of their funnier skits had this immortal advice to the Minister: “We must do something. This is something.  Let’s do it!”

Pierre Trudeau once famously said that (opposition) Members of Parliament are nobodies 50 yards from Parliament Hill.  On July 25, 1969 he said, “The opposition … do not have to govern, they have only to talk. …. When they get home, when they get out of Parliament, when they are 50 yards from Parliament Hill, they are no longer honourable members – they are just nobodies, Mr. Speaker.”

Recently, in the cabinets of Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, as we saw during and after the Jody Wilson-Raybould testimony at the Parliamentary Committee on SNC-Lavalin, we could almost say the same about ministers being nobodies if that is what the PMO wanted. Ministers are subject to the control of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), a group of senior political staffers serving the PM. The PMO acts as the real, unelected government that controls the Ministers, and through them, the government departments and the government’s messaging to voters.

As always, in the years after an election there will be unforeseen events.  In the 2015 election no one could foresee the pandemic, rising inflation, forthcoming higher interest rates, and increasing geopolitical stresses from Russia and China. Who do we want as the elected monarch heading the PMO to deal with the unforeseeable in the years ahead? Your choice will be limited by who is on the ballot in your riding when you vote. But that is still an important choice, to be made carefully.

This brings us to the concluding question: how should you choose who to vote for?

How Should You Chose Who to Vote for?

There are four generic ways to decide who to vote for. It is not for me to tell you how to vote, any more than which candidate to vote for. But it may be useful to you to review the different ways of making your voting decision.

  • You could be a loyal party voter who usually votes for the same political party in most elections.  If you feel loyal to that party in most or all elections, your choice is easy, if not already made.
  • This time you could be a switch voter who, when you are dissatisfied with the party for which you previously voted will switch your vote to another party.  If so, your voting decision will not depend upon party loyalty but whether you think it is time for a change. 
  • You could be a personality voter who will vote for the local candidate you like best, or vote for the candidate of the party whose leader you would like to be the Prime Minister (monarch) for the next four years or so.
  • You could be a policy voter, who will vote for particular policies, perhaps even if the party promising to implement those policies is unlikely to become the government (e.g. the NDP or the Green Party).  If so, your voting decision will consider both your policy preference and the likelihood that the party will be able to do something significant to advance that policy.  However, in many elections each party will propose a mix of policies, some of which you may like or dislike.  Then you may have to vote on more general policy principles such as whether a party is too far to the left or the right for your policy comfort.

If one or another of the above is too simplified, your choice may involve a mix of these considerations.  If so, you will have to think more about what your decision should be in the next election.


The right to vote is very important in any democracy, if democracy is to be sustained. Winston Churchill famously said:

it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

Churchill was right that democracy is imperfect and messy, but if we don’t keep it alive by voting, the alternative is worse. A monarch who we can depose at election time is preferable to one we can’t depose without a violent revolution. And if the monarch is doing a good job, or at least a less bad job than would the competing alternatives, re-election is still in our collective interest.

However, if you don’t like the party leader but if that party’s candidate in your riding is a real rising star, you can still reasonably vote for the local candidate as someone who may become a minister with considerable personal influence or even eventually help to replace the leader.

1 reply »

  1. Most people have what I consider to be a flawed view of democracy. Which is that the purpose of elections are to pick the best, or the correct, leaders. I think that’s silly for a number of reasons I don’t want to go into depth for. But I’m convinced the purpose of an election isn’t to find the best leaders, but solely as a one check and balance on those in power. If an elected official does something that’s too off base for too many people then they will be ousted in the next election. That’s it.

    I think the reasons for voting play into this a lot. The leaders need to take these into account in everything they do. Lose a few too many loyalists, inspire more loyalists in your competition or anger a few too many switch voters and you’re in trouble. Voting based on personality might actually be the choice that pushes us to ensure we get the worst leaders possible as the people-pleasing psychopath will get an edge with these voters. The policy voter is the one deluded into thinking their vote can change policy, but Andrew describes how this is folly as you can’t vote for the set of policy’s you like unless they just happens to be exactly the same as a particular party (in which case are you sure you are not just a loyalist?).

    Liked by 1 person

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