Guide to the Canadian House of Commons
When you think of Canada's Parliament, you might think of the Parliament Buildings — one of Canada's best known symbols and the place where Parliament's work is done. Parliament is a place and a process, but it is also about people, each doing a different job to make the whole system run well.
* Depending on the number of MPs elected from each political party, some government Members may be seated on the opposite side of the Chamber with opposition Members (or vice versa).
After each general election, the Members of the House of Commons elect a Speaker from among MPs by secret ballot. The Speaker presides over the House of Commons and ensures that everyone respects its rules and traditions. The Speaker must be impartial and apply the rules to all Members equally.
The Speaker represents the Commons in dealings with the Senate and the Crown. The Speaker is also responsible for the administration of the House and its staff, and has many diplomatic and social duties.
The Prime Minister is the leader of the party in power and is the Head of Government. A Prime Minister's duties include presiding over Cabinet meetings, meeting official foreign delegations to Ottawa and answering questions in the House of Commons. Since the Prime Minister is usually a Member of Parliament (two Prime Ministers who held office in the 1890s were Senators), he or she also spends time helping constituents.
The Prime Minister chooses the Cabinet Ministers, and the Governor General formally appoints them. Most are MPs, and there is often at least one representative from the Senate. The Prime Minister and Cabinet meet regularly to discuss and decide on various topics such as government spending, ideas for bills, and new policies, programs and services. Most Cabinet Ministers are in charge of a government department and they report on their department's activities to Parliament. There are also Ministers of State who are assigned to assist a Cabinet Minister in a specific area within his or her portfolio. These areas often concern government priorities.
A key feature of Cabinet is the concept of collective responsibility, which means that all Ministers share responsibility for the administration of government and for the government's policies. They must all support a Cabinet decision. They may not agree with it, but they have to support it in public. If a Minister cannot support a decision, he or she must resign from Cabinet.
Another important feature of our parliamentary system is responsible government. This means that the government must have the support of the majority of Members in the House of Commons to stay in power. In the British tradition, if the government loses a vote on a major measure, or on any motion of non-confidence, it is expected to resign or to ask the Governor General to call a general election.
Parliamentary Secretaries are MPs in the House of Commons who are appointed by the Prime Minister to help Cabinet Ministers. They table documents or answer questions for a Minister, participate in debates on bills, attend committee meetings and speak on government policies and proposals, and serve as a link between parliamentarians and Ministers.
The role of the Official Opposition is to challenge government policies, hold the government accountable for its actions and give voters an alternative in the next election. Generally, the Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the party with the second largest membership in the Commons. This person leads opposition debates and suggests changes to government legislation or alternative proposals. Each opposition party in the Commons has its own leader and appoints critics from among its members. Each critic handles a certain subject, such as health or defence. They present their party's policies on the subject and comment on government policies.
Each recognized party appoints one member to be its House Leader (a recognized party is one that has a minimum of 12 seats in the House of Commons). The House Leaders of all the parties meet regularly to discuss upcoming business in the Commons, how long bills will be debated and when special issues will be discussed.
Each recognized party also has a Whip. The Whips ensure that enough party members are in the Chamber for debates and votes. Given the many responsibilities MPs have, this is not always easy. The Whips also determine which committees a party member will sit on, assign offices and seats in the House, and discipline members who break party ranks.
Seated at a long table in front of the Speaker are the Clerk and other procedural officials of the House. They advise the Speaker and Members on the rules to be followed in the Commons. The Clerk is the senior official of the House of Commons Administration and keeps the official record of proceedings. At the end of the Table lies the Mace, the symbol of the authority of the House of Commons. At the end of the Chamber, opposite the Speaker, sits the Sergeant-at-Arms. This person is responsible for security in the House of Commons and has ceremonial duties. House officials and Members are assisted by the pages who, among other duties, carry messages to the Members in the Chamber.