On December 11, 1979, John Crosbie entered the House of Commons
in grey and black sealskin boots from his native Newfoundland,
following the tradition that Ministers of Finance wear new shoes
when they present the government’s economic forecast. It was
Crosbie’s first budget speech, and it was to be his last.
Crosbie’s budget promised higher energy prices and increased
taxes. These were tough measures, and likely to be unpopular in
many quarters, but Crosbie and Prime Minister Joe Clark were
confident. Their Conservative party had won the federal election
only months before, unseating the Liberals of Pierre Trudeau,
and Trudeau who had announced that he would soon leave the party
leadership was clearly uninterested in leading the parliamentary
opposition. The New Democrats and the Quebec
Créditistes were also
badly bruised. Both had lost a substantial number of their House
of Commons seats on election night.
The media and business reviews of the Crosbie budget were
generally positive. It was Christmas time on Parliament Hill,
with the holidays coming. Surely a favourable Commons vote on
the budget was only a formality.
Yet Clark had fewer than half of the 282 seats in the Commons.
To pass the budget, he needed help from one of the other
parties. The New Democrats, angered by an increase of four cents
a litre in the excise tax on gasoline, moved a motion of no
confidence in the government. The Liberals supported the New
Democrats, while the
And that was it — enough to bring down the government. Clark
lost the motion by six votes. Defeated in the House of Commons
on an essential part of his political program, Clark immediately
requested that the Governor General dissolve Parliament and call
an election. This was done, and in February 1980 the voters
threw Clark out of office. A resurrected Pierre Trudeau returned
as Prime Minister of Canada.
The Conservatives had ignored the most fundamental principle of
Canadian parliamentary democracy. A prime minister cannot
continue in office without the support of a majority of the
members of the House of Commons. Clark’s party did not have
sufficient backing to govern on its own.
The House of Commons is made up of Members of Parliament, or
MPs, elected across the provinces and territories of Canada
roughly on the basis of representation by population. The prime
minister and almost all the cabinet come from the Commons; the
executive that administers the nation’s business is not a
separate branch of government, as is the case in the United
The Commons operates as a national forum for the clash of
political ideas and priorities. Government members sit on one
side of the Commons chamber, at the right hand of the Speaker,
the Commons umpire. The opposition sits opposite, only a few
metres away. The competition is intense, giving rise to the
worst in partisan misbehaviour, but also encouraging legitimate
debate and scrutiny of the government.
Question Period, held every weekday when the House is in session
and widely broadcast on television, allows the opposition to
demand that the government respond to difficult questions. It is
messy, chaotic, often nasty, and answers frequently do not come,
but Question Period demands that the prime minister and his
party justify their actions and policies. In the British House
of Commons, the model for Canada’s Commons, prime ministers are
given the questions in advance, and they attend Question Period
only once a week. Not so in Canada, where the prime minister and
cabinet members appear regularly and have no knowledge of the
No law can be made and no tax imposed without the approval of
the House of Commons, Canada’s chief legislative body. However,
members of parliament are expected to vote with their leaders in
the House of Commons, and MPs who do not are subject to strict
Individual MPs can make their voices heard through committee
work and in political party settings, but it is difficult to
stand apart from the crowd or become known to the public. When
they stepped a short distance from Parliament, the sharp-tongued
Pierre Trudeau said early on in his first term as prime
minister, members of the House were of no consequence.
Long-serving prime ministers from Trudeau on have dominated the
levers of power, so much so that political commentators
frequently compare them to American presidents. Yet, unlike
presidents, prime ministers control their legislatures and can
name senators and Supreme Court judges. The tight grip of prime
ministers on government is sometimes described as an elected
The House of Commons, though, is at its best the people’s
legislature, reflecting, representing, and expressing popular
needs and opinions. And sometimes it can be more than that,
particularly when no single party is fully in command.
Just ask Joe Clark and John Crosbie.
Norman Hillmer is Professor of History and International Affairs
at Carleton University. Further Reading: Robert J. Jackson and
Doreen Jackson have a clear description of the House of Commons
in their Canadian Government in Transition (Toronto: Pearson
Prentice Hall, 2006).
Next Instalment: The Senate
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