When is a Prime Minister not a Prime Minister?

Style can be a sticky thing, and this one’s been bugging us: Once an election has been called, should media refer still refer to the Prime Minister by his (or her) title? Or should we drop it and refer to the person simply as “X” Party Leader? We asked former CBC grammar guru Judy Maddren to set the record straight.

The short answer is, “when she/he is on the campaign trail as a party leader during an election”.

When an election is called, the Prime Minister asks the Governor General to dissolve parliament. The PM is still the Prime Minister until she/he resigns and a new Prime Minister is sworn in.
So in any stories related to diplomacy, Foreign Affairs or any other matter connected with governing Canada and its position in the world, Stephen Harper should continue to be referred to as the Prime Minister of Canada.

During an election campaign, Parliament is dissolved. No legislation is debated, passed or ignored. The federal government is run by a cabinet and the elected officials in that cabinet continue some administrative work. These ministers do not lose their positions unless and until the current Prime Minister resigns.

The theory is that by not referring to Stephen Harper as Prime Minister when he is on the campaign trail, we are treating candidates equally and not giving one party a perceived advantage over another.

In a perfect world, all stories about the election should refer to party leaders. But it doesn’t mean that it can’t be pointed out that Stephen Harper is the Prime Minister. We often underestimate the messages we send with thoughtless language. So being clear about the story and the headliners’ places in the story, is more fair-minded and respectful of the intelligence of the audience.

And on the subject of election, in a parliamentary system, the people elect governments, not Prime Ministers. We do not hold direct elections for first ministers. So, if there is a change ahead, and another party wins enough seats to form a government, it is most accurate to avoid using “Prime Minister-Elect” when her/his party is voted into power. Best practice is “the new” or “the next” if another party has been elected to form the next government.

Judy Maddren is a partner in Soundportraits, producing audio recordings of people of all ages recalling their memories and experiences. She hosted CBC Radio’s World Report till 2009, and for almost a decade was the Media Broadcast Advisor, providing language, pronunciation and style recommendations to CBC broadcasters and writers.