Leadership Term Limits in Canada

An interesting question was raised by Samara Canada this morning over twitter:

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…without question something worth taking a look at, especially in light of recent rumours that Conservatives are looking to impose term limits on their leaders. Stephen Harper served as Prime Minister of Canada for nearly nine years after winning three elections as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. However, he is not the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history, that honour rests with William Lyon Mackenzie King who served just over 21 years after winning six elections as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Four prime ministers in Canadian history have served mandates that were not consecutive, meaning they stayed on as leader of their party (or in one case, briefly retired) regardless of a general election loss from an incumbency position. Over half of Canadian prime ministers have served over 5 years in office and of those eleven, only one managed in with only a single mandate (the average number of mandate for that top half was two).

This picture of our head of government in Canada is in stark contrast to the United States which, through constitutional amendment, have limited the terms of their Presidents to two four year terms. The exception would be in time of great needs, for example a time of war, which has only occurred once in the history of that country. The argument articulated in the United States justifying term limits rests on an overall check and balance that limits the control of a powerful personality occupying the White House.

But there are also arguments against terms limits which are entirely valid. For example, it is argued that an eight year cycle of leadership results in short-sighted executive government. There is also an argument to be made about an executive formulated on a mandated short term against a legislature that can have members re-elected for an indefinite period of time, and the power imbalance which is created in such a situation.

We can debate the merits of term limits back and forth, but the fact remains that in Canada the office of the Prime Minister is not an official office within the structure of our executive and legislature. In fact, the title of Prime Minister is not used once in any constitutional document in Canada (same for in the United Kingdom). This is significant and there are important reasons why this apparent oversight is in fact intentional. Primarily, the prime minister of Canada is first and foremost a member of the legislature. This is a fundamental tenant of responsible government in Canada; the practice of executive members of the government being drawn from elected members of Parliament. This is in contrast to the government system in the United States where the head of state is separate from the legislature, not infused as in our British parliamentary model. In the US system, the President is directly accountable to the people, in Canada the prime minister is directly accountable to the House of Commons which is composed of members who are directly accountable to the people (which include the sitting PM directly as a member).

In the United States, the president is chosen in an election which is separate from that of the legislature. Each of the two major political parties have established primary systems designed to determine their respective candidate for the presidential election. It is all done separate from the mechanisms that support the election of the legislature. In Canada, the prime minister is chosen based on which party is able to establish and maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. Canadians play no role in choosing the prime minister aside from electing their respective member of Parliament. Our accountability of this system is based on the fact that the person chosen by our head of state (the Queen delegated to the Governor-General) will only come from the elected batch of members in the House of Commons. And the mechanisms of who goes forward from that batch is entirely based on partisan politics. We do not chose, as Canadians, who leads the various parties and thus has a chance of becoming Prime Minister. As members of the respective parties we may have a say, and the mechanism of that voice is determine through internal party constitutions and by-laws. A party could very well select a leader among only elected members of their own caucus (as was done in the United Kingdom for centuries).

In our current political system in Canada, it would be impossible and irresponsible to impose term limits on the prime minister. It would be terribly undemocratic to impose restrictions on who a group of Canadians formed as a political party can elected as their leader and for how long. Political parties themselves are free to impose limits on their leaders, and indeed can indirectly impose limits on the prime minister by having these limits internally. But there simply would be no statutory avenue for the legislature to establish law that would impose a limit on the prime minister without their being a limit within their own party.

Photo credit.

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