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Federal Government Organization, House of Commons

Canadian parliamentary system, reapportionment, minority party, Official Opposition, money bills

Members of Commons are directly elected by the Canadian voters. There is no uniform interval between national, or general, elections, but by law they must be held at least once every five years. Each province and territory is divided into ridings, and each riding elects one member. The total number of seats is reapportioned periodically on the basis of the national census. Each riding contains, on the average, about 100,000 voters. The reapportionment after the census of 1996 fixed the membership at 301. Ontario has 103 members, Quebec 75, British Columbia 34, Alberta 26, Saskatchewan 14, Manitoba 14, Nova Scotia 11, New Brunswick 10, Newfoundland and Labrador 7, Prince Edward Island 4, Northwest Territories 1, Nunavut 1, and Yukon Territory 1. When a seat becomes vacant between general elections, a by-election is held in that riding to fill that seat.

To qualify for election to the House of Commons, a candidate must be a Canadian citizen and at least 18 years of age. But, unless running as an independent, a candidate must go through a nomination process at the party level first. A candidate or member does not have to live in the riding he or she represents, but most do.

In practice, Commons is the key legislative branch, where most important bills are introduced; all money bills must originate in Commons. The prime minister and most of the Cabinet are members of Commons. Tradition decrees that if a government loses the support of a majority of Commons, it must surrender power or call a general election. Therefore, members of the party in power rarely vote against government policies. Dissent within the party is expressed in private meetings or party caucuses, but the party usually presents a solid front in Parliament.

All political parties in the House of Commons that do not support the government are known collectively as the opposition. The minority party with the most seats in Commons is known as the Official Opposition and has special privileges. The leader of the Official Opposition is one of the most important and visible figures in the House of Commons. In the Canadian parliamentary system it is the duty of the opposition to oppose the party in power. Government programs and bills submitted to Parliament are subject to close scrutiny and criticism by members of the opposition. The prime minister and his Cabinet must be ready at all times to explain and defend the government’s program or actions to the opposition.

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