Ep. 02: What's the difference between Parliament and Government?




February 25, 2021  13 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. And for those of you who've tuned in before, welcome back. I'm Erin and I'm here with Stephanie.



Stephanie: Hi everyone.



Erin: Here at ON Parliament, we explore the function and history of Ontario's Parliament. And today's episode is going to be a good one. It's may be a little bit technical, but we promise to try to make it as fun as possible too.



Stephanie: So, before we actually get into our episode Erin, how about we start off with a game?



Erin: I mean, you know me, Stephanie; I'm always game for a game.



Stephanie: Oh wow. The puns are coming early today. Okay, let's try a little word association. I'm going to give you a word and I want you to say as many other words as you can think of. Ready?



Erin: As ready as I'll ever be.



Stephanie: Alright. Your word of the day is parliament.



Erin: Hmm. Parliament. Alright. The Legislative Assembly, obviously, Government, Opposition, the Chamber, MPPs, MPs...



Stephanie: Okay. Okay. I think we get the picture. You obviously know a lot of words related to parliament. But what was one of the first things that you said?



Erin: The Legislative Assembly?



Stephanie: And the next thing?



Erin: I think it was Government?



Stephanie: That's right. Government. Now a lot of people like to use these words - parliament and government - interchangeably. But they actually mean very different things.



Erin: I know it can get a little complicated and confusing for a lot of people. For me, before working at the Legislative Assembly, I would always use parliament and government interchangeably.



Stephanie:  Definitely. Hopefully today’s episode will help clear things up for a lot of people.



Erin: But before we get into any definitions though, I think it would probably be best for us to take a step back and start at the very beginning.



Stephanie: How far back are we talking?



Erin: I think we should probably start with how we actually choose our elected officials here in Ontario. So, in Canada, we have a democratic system. Fun fact.



Stephanie: Yes. The fun facts are back.



Erin: I mean, we couldn't leave the people hanging. The fun facts are the best part. So, as I was saying... Fun fact: did you know that the word "democracy" comes from the Ancient Greek meaning "rule by the people"? Keeping that in mind, it helps explain that a democratic system like ours in Ontario, is based on the idea of the people being able to pick their own representatives in an election.



Stephanie: In both Canada and here in Ontario, we use what's referred to as a Single Member Plurality System for our elections.



Erin: That is quite a mouthful.



Stephanie: It really is. Luckily, you’ve probably already heard of it; it’s also known more commonly as the first-past-the-post system. Under this system each person has one vote to pick their preferred candidate in their region. These areas are also called electoral districts or ridings. For the purpose of this podcast, we’ll be using the term riding. The candidate with the highest number of votes in each riding then becomes their Member of Provincial Parliament.



Erin: The reason we use this system of ridings is to ensure that each vote is weighted equally. In Ontario, our ridings represent approximately 100,000 people and currently there are 124 of them distributed across the province. This means that each vote can and does make a big difference for each riding. In fact, we've seen some pretty close races in Ontario in the past. Fun fact: during the election in 1981, the riding of Parry Sound was won by a margin of only six votes.



Stephanie: That's pretty close, but I actually found a race that was even closer. In 1905, the riding of Prescott was won by only one vote. The final tally: 2093 votes to 2092.



Erin: Wow. Yeah, I think you definitely have me beat with that one.



Stephanie: Well, it really proves our point that every vote matters. But how do political parties fit into all of this?



Erin: That's a great question. Typically, when candidates decide to run, they have the support of a political party behind them. On the ballots, you'll see each candidate's name along with their party affiliation. In this way, voters don’t vote directly for party leaders or parties themselves but instead, they pick the candidate they feel will do the best job of representing their community once elected. Then, usually the party with the most candidates elected across all of the ridings will be asked to form the Government. And now we've come full circle - back to where we started - with one of our key terms of the day: government.



Stephanie: If you ask most people what government means they’ll probably say that it’s all of the MPPs from the party that got the most votes in the last election. But is that really the case?



Erin: Well in reality, when we use the word Government we’re technically only talking about the Premier and the group of Ministers that make up Cabinet or the Executive Council. You may have also heard them referred to as the Executive Branch.



Stephanie: Members of Cabinet are chosen by the head of government - in this case the Premier. In other words, they are appointed to their roles. Fun fact: although Cabinet Ministers are usually Members of Provincial Parliament, they don't have to be. It’s actually only a convention.



Erin: Same with Party Leaders, Stephanie. They don't technically have to be elected Members either.



Stephanie: Can we count that as a double fun fact?



Erin: I mean, we do make the rules on the podcast, so I'm going to say absolutely. Yes.



Stephanie: Excellent.



Erin: Back to the Executive Branch or Government – while the Ministers are the most commonly recognized piece, this Branch also contains the different departments and agencies that deliver government services so think: Service Ontario.



Stephanie: So that’s what government means but what about our other word of the day: parliament?



Erin: Well in its simplest definition, Parliament refers to the group of people who are elected to make and change the laws of a specific area. That means that when we talk about Parliament or the Legislative Branch, we're talking about all 124 MPPs. This includes Cabinet and the Premier along with the other parties and Members that make up the Opposition.



Stephanie: But Parliament can also mean the forum or space that the Members use to make the laws. So, when we're talking about Parliament, we’re also talking about the Legislative Building itself and the Chamber where all the MPPs meet to discuss issues and pass laws for the province.



Erin: So, to recap: all MPPs are part of Parliament, but not all MPPs are part of the Government.



Stephanie: So, what we’re saying is that the Premier is part of Government and Parliament. But a Member of the Opposition would only be part of Parliament.



Erin:  Exactly.



Stephanie:  Well one of the best ways that we see this principle in action is actually through Confidence Votes.



Erin: Ah yes, Confidence Votes. Well according to our constitutional conventions - try to say that five times fast - if the Government of the day fails to maintain the confidence of the majority of the MPPs, it must resign. There are a few key items that are customarily debated during a parliamentary session. The Speech from the Throne and the Budget are probably the best examples. If the Government of the day doesn't receive enough votes from all parties on one of these items - it's said that they don't have the Confidence of the House.



Stephanie: Or in other words, the Government can't continue to govern without the support of the elected Members who in turn represent the will of the people.



Erin: These confidence votes actually hold more or less weight depending on the type of government that we have.



Stephanie: Now there are a couple of different types of government and Majority and Minority Governments are usually the most common.



Erin: Luckily for us, they're both exactly what they sound like. So, a Majority Government is formed when the Government's party has over 50% of the total number of seats and therefore votes in the Chamber. Whereas a Minority Government is formed when the Government's party does not have more than 50% of the total number of seats. Fun fact: Ontario has only ever had six Minority Governments since the time of Confederation in 1867.



Stephanie: During a Majority Government, Confidence Votes don't normally hold as much weight because the Government can rely on the support of their own Party Members during these votes. But Minority Governments are different. What sometimes happens is that they will include or exclude certain policies from these items as a compromise to secure votes from the other parties.



Erin: Stephanie, I feel like there’s an Aha! moment here with our two key terms of the day.



Stephanie: Absolutely! Confidence Votes embody the fact that the Government or Executive - which is appointed - is responsible to Parliament or the Legislature - which is elected - and therefore the voters.



Erin: Hey! I think that sounds a little bit like the idea of Responsible Government?



Stephanie: That’s because that’s exactly what it is...



Erin: Hey what do you know – I actually got it right for once. But hold on. I think we’re still missing something.



Stephanie: Really? Okay. Let’s see… we’ve talked about ridings, parliament and government, Confidence Votes, Majority and Minority Governments. I really don’t think there's anything else. I think that covers it!



Erin: Wait I got it! We still haven’t mentioned coalitions!



Stephanie: How could I have forgotten about coalitions!



Erin: Well, I mean they are pretty rare so it's kind of understandable. Fun fact: since the time of Confederation, we've only had two Coalition Governments in Ontario; one in 1867 and the other in 1919. So, they are definitely... in the minority. See what I did there?



Stephanie: Oh, I do. But I really wish I hadn't.



Erin: Hey! That was a pretty sweet parliamentary pun. If I do say so myself.



Stephanie: Whatever you say. Okay let’s get back to coalitions. They really only happen if there's a tie or a small Minority Government that doesn't think that they'll be able to win a Confidence Vote. Fun fact: the first election in Ontario in 1867, led to a tie - 41 Members were elected from each of the two parties at the time. Because of the tie, the two parties formed a coalition.



Erin: A Coalition Government is usually formed when the party with the most elected members doesn't have over 50% of the seats in the Chamber. Instead, they form an official agreement with one or more other parties or groups to secure a majority of the seats and therefore the votes.



Stephanie: As we said before, each Minister within Cabinet is selected by the Premier. They are then assigned a specific portfolio or area of focus, like Infrastructure or Labour, Training and Skills Development, for example. It's then that Minister's role to oversee the services that fall within their portfolio, as well as to introduce any new laws that are related to their ministry's specific area of focus.



Erin: So, to use your example, Stephanie, that would mean that the Minister of Infrastructure would introduce any new laws about building projects while the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development would be responsible for bills impacting workplace safety. In a Coalition Government, these Ministers are selected from all groups that formed the alliance versus in a Minority or Majority Government where the Ministers only come from the one party.



Stephanie: No matter the type of Government though, if they can’t maintain the Confidence of the House for whatever reason, a new election will usually be called and the process starts all over again. But how often do we actually have elections in Ontario?



Erin: Well, it’s the Government’s responsibility to set the next election date, though it usually happens within four years of the previous election. Every election can change the makeup of Parliament, which affects the formation of Government. And look at that. We’ve actually come back to where we started!



Stephanie: I didn’t think we’d make it but here we are. That was a whole lot of info for us for today. Who knew we could talk about government and parliament for so long?



Erin: I definitely knew…



Stephanie: Well, it's true that we may have taken a couple of twists and turns along the way but, we hope the main takeaway from today’s episode is that while we all use the terms parliament and government interchangeably, they truly mean very different things.



Erin: Not only that, but they also each have a very specific and important role to play in our law-making process.



Stephanie: We should keep that in mind for future episodes. But we can't wrap up today without doing our fun fact count.



Erin: True. That's definitely the most important part of any episode. Today’s fun fact count is 7!



Stephanie: Okay. But does it include our double fun fact?



Erin: Of course, I would never forget the double fun fact; could not leave the people hanging. But we still have so much more to talk about and we hope that you'll tune in next time for a very special episode with some guest interviews!



Stephanie: Thanks for listening to ON Parliament, where we spread the word on parliament!



Erin: Got to go. I think I hear the bells.



Stephanie: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Stephanie: Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today's episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing.



Stephanie: For more fun facts about Ontario's parliament, follow us on Twitter and Instagram: @onparleducation. Et en français sur Twitter: @parloneducation.



Erin: Thanks again, and see you next time.