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Federal Government Organization, Executive

William Lyon Mackenzie King, confidence vote, American system, cabinet ministers, civil service

The executive head of government is the prime minister, generally the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons. Canada’s parliamentary system is modeled on that of Britain, where the prime minister must be elected from a local riding (district) like any other member of the House of Commons. The prime minister derives his or her executive position by being head of the party, which in most cases votes as a bloc. This is unlike the American system, for example, where the chief executive (the president) is elected separately. In cases where no one party has a majority in Commons, the governor-general chooses the leader most likely to win support from other parties. If a prime minister resigns as leader of the party before an election, the new party leader automatically becomes prime minister until an election can be held.

The responsibilities and powers of the prime minister are far reaching. He or she sets the policy of the government and determines what legislation should be passed. Through the Cabinet, he or she controls all the functions of the federal government, including budget allocations. The prime minister names the cabinet ministers (who are then officially appointed by the governor-general) and also recommends appointees to the civil service, Senate, and judiciary.

The length of term of the prime minister is at most five years, but he or she generally calls an election before then. There is no restriction on the number of terms a prime minister may serve; William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister for 13 consecutive years and served two other separate terms. The prime minister may, however, be removed by a vote of no confidence in Parliament—that is, a declaration by the majority of the members that they no longer support him or her. A no-confidence vote forces the prime minister either to resign or to call a general election.

The Cabinet consists of as many as 40 members, most of whom are ministers presiding over the various departments of the federal government, such as finance, immigration, labor, or health. They are supported by civil servants headed by a deputy minister. Some members of the Cabinet may be ministers without portfolio, who are not assigned to a department. Although they have no formal legal power, cabinet ministers exercise considerable authority to make and enforce regulations in their various departments through orders issued by the governor-general. The prime minister generally selects his or her Cabinet from party members sitting in Commons, but he or she may also draw them from other parties or the Senate.

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