ELEMENTS OF THE EXECUTIVE
The executive branch of government is the largest and most important in modern states. In
parliamentary systems, the executive branch directly manages the work of the legislative
The executive branch is:
• Symbolic executive
o Queen, president,
• Political executive
o Prime minister, president, the cabinet
• Permanent executive
o Professional bureaucrats, civil servants, advisors, administrators, etc
The head of state is essentially an office that acts as the symbolic executive. The constitution
places him/she above all other government officials.
The head of government is the leader of the political executive and directs the work of both the
political and permanent elements of the executive.
PARLIMENT AND PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEMS COMPARED
In a presidential system, the head of state and head of government are combined into one.
Parliamentary systems have a dual executive, the head of state acts as “referee” and the prime
minister as the head of government.
The head of state in a parliamentary system appoints the head of government (prime minister)
but he or she is obliged to choose the party leader most likely to command majority support in
the legislature. In all parliamentary systems, the head of government personally selects the rest
of the cabinet (political executive) even though they are formally appointed by the head of state.
The constitutional convention is for the head of state to act on “advice” of the cabinet. Real
political power lies with the elected politicians who are accountable to the legislature. The head of state has a few personal prerogative powers, to remove the head of government or
political executives; which are used rarely and only in rare, outrageous abuses in the system by
the political executive or when parliament is paralyzed.
The cabinet ministers who form the political executive in a parliamentary system usually must
be members of the legislature. Membership in the legislature is necessary to facilitate the
principle of responsible government. Responsible government ensures that the government is
directly accountable to the citizens’ elected representatives in the legislature.
Collective responsibility involves the cabinet as a whole. The government must always have
the confidence of the majority of the legislature. In theory, this collective responsibility means
that the legislature may pull the plug on a government at any given time. The idea behind this
principle is that the government must at all times consider the wishes of the elected
representatives of the people. This principle is common among all parliamentary systems.
Each member of cabinet is bound by an individual ministerial responsibility. Ministers must
answer questions in the legislature about how the government is conducting its affairs. There
are formal question periods when ministers must answer questions posed by other members of
the legislature. In Ottawa this lasts 45 minutes a day.
The cabinet is directly responsible to the legislature, but only indirectly responsible for the
electorate. In Canada we elect 308 MP’s
The prime minister and cabinet are the focus of power. Because of party discipline, the cabinet
is usually able to ensure that the legislature approves the majority of its proposals. Because of
the cabinet’s membership in and direction of the legislature, it’s talked about as a “fusion of
The separation of power is an important principle where the president and cabinet are
separate from the legislature, or congress. Some differences are when wanting to remove the
president; it must be done with the impeachment process, where the president must be found
guilty of a serious crime. In a parliament the head of state can, technicall