The province of Ontario has had dozens of premiers since 1867. Canadian law does not provide a formal job description for the Premier of Ontario. In fact, the highest office in the Canadian province is that of Lieutenant Governor, who represents the Queen of the British Commonwealth. In practice, however, the Premier of Ontario is the head of democratically-elected government in Canada’s most populous province. He is also a member of the provincial parliament and leader of the political party that won the most seats in an election.
Canada is a federation. The division of powers between the federal government on the national level and the provincial governments outlines the areas for which provincial governments are responsible. Constitutional expert Senator Eugene Forsey (1929-1991) summarized provincial powers as follows:
Direct taxation in the province for provincial purposes Natural resources Prisons (except penitentiaries) Charitable institutions Hospitals (except marine hospitals) Municipal institutions Licences for provincial and municipal revenue purposes Local works and undertakings (with certain exceptions) Incorporation of provincial companies Solemnization of marriage Property rights Civil rights Creation of courts and the administration of justice Fines and penalties for breaking provincial laws Matters of a merely local or private nature in the province Education Agriculture (shared with federal government) Immigration (shared with federal government) Old age, disability and survivors’ pensions
Thus, as the head of a provincial government, the Premier of Ontario is responsible for a wide range of governmental powers that affect the everyday lives of Ontarians.
The First Minister
The “premier shapes the conduct and decisions of Cabinet and speaks for the (provincial) government,” according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. The executive branch of provincial government is run by the Executive Council. Commonly called “the Cabinet,” the council members are all Ministers responsible for various areas of government. They are appointed by the premier who holds the title “President of the Executive Council.” The premier is the “first minister” and responsible for the policy direction and management of the ministries. The premier sits atop the pyramid of provincial civil servants. In 2010, the Ontario government was comprised of the following ministries:
Aboriginal Affairs Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Attorney General Children and Youth Services Citizenship and Immigration Community and Social Services Community Safety and Correctional Services Consumer Services Culture Economic Development and Trade Education Energy and Infrastructure Environment Finance Francophone Affairs Government Services Health and Long-Term Care Health Promotion Intergovernmental Affairs Labour Municipal Affairs and Housing Natural Resources Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Research and Innovation Revenue Seniors' Secretariat Tourism Training, Colleges and Universities Transportation Women's Directorate
Member of Provincial Parliament
The Premier of Ontario is an elected member of the provincial parliament. Thus, in addition to executive branch responsibilities, the premier also performs legislative branch functions as the elected member of an electoral district (called a “riding”). The premier swears the oath of office of an elected member of parliament and has lawmaking and voting powers. The premier delivers a “throne speech” to outline the government’s priorities. She participates in debates of legislation and her government introduces bills that become acts or regulations. She, however, does not have the powers to sign or veto legislation.
Political Party Leader
According to unwritten conventions of Ontario’s Westminster-style governmental system, the premier is leader of the political party that wins the most seats in an election. Thus the premier has certain obligations to the political platform, electoral promises and membership of the party that elected him as head.
Much of what a premier can or cannot do depends on unwritten conventions and personality traits. A premier who is backed by a large majority in parliament may be bolder in making pronouncement or management decisions. If her approval rating is high and the party is doing well in public opinion polling, a premier may be tempted to test the boundaries between the federal and provincial division of power. “Many premiers have been termed autocratic but the realization of this potential will in large part depends on the propensity and ability of each premier to utilize the power of the office,” according to author Norman J. Ruff.