‘Premier’ instead of ‘Prime Minister’?

As David and I approach the very final set of pre-production revisions for our book draft, we are considering shifting terminology. Instead of calling the head of a cabinet that depends on parliamentary confidence a prime minister, we are considering using premier.

Premier has the advantage of being one syllable word and of giving us a neatly alliterative three-word title.

Is there any downside that readers see? That is, are these terms not used synonymously in some way that we are overlooking? I am aware that in Canada the head of the federal cabinet is the Prime Minister, whereas the head of a provincial cabinet is Premier. But that is presumably only a convenience of federalism (much like Prime Minister and Chief Minister in India, or President and Governor in most presidential federal systems).

Comments very much welcome as we approach this momentous decision.

33 thoughts on “‘Premier’ instead of ‘Prime Minister’?

  1. You’re correct about the term “premier” in Canada, the term only exists as a convenience to make the positions easier to distinguish in discussion. In French, “premier/ère ministre” is used for both positions, and it’s not terribly uncommon to see “first minister” used for both in English.

    I don’t foresee any particular trouble with using “premier” for parliamentary heads of cabinet, as long as you’re quite careful around other uses of “premier”. Certainly it’s a less-overloaded term than “prime minister”.

    PS: Unless there is some dialect of which I’m not aware, “premier” still has two syllables.

  2. I look forward to the monosyllabic Prems and Prezzies. The word is trisyllabic in my part of the world, but it is used in the same way as Canada to distinguish the first minister of a state from the first minister of the federation. Oddly enough what a Canadian would call a first ministers’ conference, we would call a premiers’ conference,

  3. OK, guys, you don’t need to pile on, although I am having some chuckles now over trying to imagine the three of you attempting to pronounce premier with one syllable, ’cause I originally said you could!

  4. Well, it’s bound to confuse a lot of Canadians–I actually speak a couple of languages where you can use ‘prime minister’ and ‘premier’ interchangeably, and it still gives me a start. But are those people your audience? I guess that’s the question.

  5. I certainly hope there will be some Canadians in the readership, but not the confused ones (which surely must be a very small minority!).

    In context, it should be quite clear that the entire book is about national executives.

    [IP, first (announced) visit in some time, and last time I checked, there had not been activity at your place in a while, either.]

  6. In Australianese, “premier” has three syllables (“PREM-ee-yah”). But I agree – it’s punchier as a title.

    I have been compiling a few (minor) feedback comments… what’s the deadline to give you and DS feedback?

  7. Tom, thanks for compiling comments. We are almost done, so only something really minor–or, I suppose REALLY major–could be incorporated at this point.

  8. The New York Times use to have a practice where “Prime Minister” was used as the title of the head of government in English speaking countries, and “Premiere” was use everywhere else (well, except for Germany and Austria). They changed this and now use “Prime Minister” everywhere. I like the first idea.

    Primiere has only one fewer syllable and five fewer letters than Prime Minister. Plus all those vowels strung together, which guarantees mispellings from time to time. I’m not sure if there are any benefits to the substitution.

    I’m pretty convinced that if the U.S. ever adopts a parliamentary form of government, it would have to be in a heavily disguised manner due to American exceptionalism, so neither title would be used.

  9. Actually, I am fairly sure there are benefits of the substitution, so my question was whether there were drawbacks. And whether those drawbacks might outweigh the benefits.

    Ed makes a very clear point about the spelling difficulty.

  10. I would strongly suggest you use the phrase ‘Prime Minister’ when referring to heads of national parliamentary governments. Not only is the term ‘Premier’ used for sub-national (i.e., provincial) heads of parliamentary governments in Canada, but it is also the term used for the heads of Australia’s six state governments and distinguishes them from the Prime Minister of Australia, who is of course the head of the national, federal government. I would judge any undergraduate in a very poor light if he/she talked about Kevin Rudd as the Premier of Australia or about Stephen Harper as the Premier of Canada.

    Another strong argument for describing the heads of national parliamentary governments as Prime Ministers – and not as Premiers – stems from accepted usage of the term ‘Prime Minister’. Try the following simple test: google the phrases ‘Prime Minister of Denmark’, ‘Danish Prime Minister’, ‘Premier of Denmark’, and ‘Danish Premier’, and what happens?

    ‘Prime Minister of Denmark’ occurs 79,600 times and ‘Danish Prime Minister’ 82,800 times. One the other hand, however, ‘Premier of Denmark’ scores only 3,040 hits, while ‘Danish Premier’ accounts for a mere 7,780 mentions (including many to the Danish premier football league!). In other words, the head of the national parliamentary government of Denmark (known as the ‘statsminister’ in Danish) is at least 15 times more likely to be called the Prime Minister in English, than the Premier. That’s quite a downside …

  11. I am with Nigel Roberts. I think you should use “prime minister.” In the book, however, maybe you use PM from time to time for ease on the reader.

    I would also add that the word “premier” makes me think of “premiere” and sounds harder to say than “prime minister,” which flows more easily. When silently reading, I am still reading in my head, and the words “prime minister” just sound nicer.

    In my not so humble opinion, I would not sacrifice the book for a three word title of the book.

  12. As an Australian, I’m with Nigel Roberts. Think in US terms: there is a president of the USA and there are 50 state governors. ‘Governor’ has one letter fewer than ‘president’, but surely no one would change the president’s title to save a letter.

  13. My preference is for “prime minister” as I think that it is more immediately clear to readers and that “premier” actually will cause many to have to pause and consider what the term means and while they will figure it out quickly, it does cause a need to pause and therefore is potentially distracting.

    Plus, I think that the spelling issue noted above is a legit one (being as prone to typos as I am).

  14. “Premier” for a national head of govt makes me think of old TIME magazines from the 1970s… For some reason “premier” sounds like they’d end up being sacked by the president, deposed in a coup, or sent into exile in the way that “prime minister” doesn’t.

  15. And note how many news reports on the recent Lisbon Treaty referendum refer to Brian Cowen as the “Irish Premier”. (Possibly because ‘Taoiseach’ is daunting to the non-Gaelic-speaker). (And here’s both Alan and myself thinking “Brian Cowen? Sure and was he not the greatest Vice-Chancellor that the University of Queensland ever had, was he not?”)

  16. “the entire book is about national executives.” What a shame. In Canada, India, Germany, Australia, and many other parliamentary federations, the most interesting precedents in the operation of conventions, and the workings of their models, are at the provincial level. Since many books and articles focus on the national level, it’s the provincial level that cries out for study.

    Provinces usually use the title “Chief Minister” throughout South Asia and in several other jurisdictions.

    In the history of Canada, as the position evolved, it was sometimes “first minister” which is still a good generic term for all of the above.

  17. Wilf’s comment somewhat amuses, because while I totally share the sentiment (political science can learn much from the subnational level), the comment about “shame” in excluding the subnational could be made only by someone who has never attempted to collect data on nearly 1000 national level executives! The data-collection problems are only compounded when one turns to the subnational.

    We earnestly hope that a new generation of scholars will be inspired to study and challenge our theoretical claims at the subnational level. It has long been “known” that, as Wilf implies, federal systems offer opportunities for subnational experiments that are sometimes adopted at the national level.

    Fortunately, there already is a vastly greater degree of within-country research using states and provinces as the unit of analysis than there was even two decades ago. There are many challenges to doing comparative (cross-national) work that also includes a within-country level of comparison. This is an area where there is likely to be much progress in coming decades. I look forward to that research, but I will be reading it and probably reviewing it, not producing it. I like to pick the low-hanging fruit, and let the younger folk climb the ladders for the fruit that is harder to reach.

  18. I think Wilf is right, but there is one great caveat. This community would tie itself in knots arguing the virtues of the title and probably insist on ‘Administrators, chief commissioners, commissioners, governors, lieutenant governors and chief ministers, first ministers, premiers, prime ministers, ministers-president’.

  19. “Sub-national?” Scotland and Wales are nations. Some say Bavaria is too. And Canadian provinces are sovereign within their constitutional jurisdictions, not subordinate in any way, as “sub” connotes.

    My comment is likely prejudiced by the fact that I prefer open-list MMP, and it is found only in Bavaria, although recommended by Arbuthnott for Scotland. And I prefer regional list MMP, found only in Scotland, Wales, Bavaria again, (optionally) in Rheinland-Pfalz; and don’t even think about Berlin.

    And while political scientists debate whether the largest party in Canada has some sort of right to govern in a minority House, the province of Ontario showed quite cleanly in 1985 how to operate an accord (“confidence-and-supply-agreement”) between the second and third parties that efficiently ousted a government soon after it lost its majority in an election.

  20. Very well, Wilf. “Non-sovereign-nation-states”? USA and Australia are one nation made up of several States. UK is one state made up of several nations… This can get confusing.

  21. It could be worse, Tom. Look up ‘mediatised’, ‘non-mediatised’, ‘Imperial free city’ and ‘Holy Roman Empire’ some time.

  22. “First-level country subdivisions” and member-states of federations need not have national character to be quasi-sovereign: every Canadian province has complete autonomy in its own fields of jurisdiction. And the is the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, with about 194 million people, worthy only of grad students?

    And certainly Belgium and Canada are even more multi-national states than the UK. Look at their UNESCO delegations: Belgium’s includes “Delegate of the Governments of the French Community of Belgium and of the Walloon Region” and “Representative of the Flemish Government” while Canada’s includes “Representative of the Government of Quebec.” Catalunya cannot be far behind, while Northern Ireland sends its own team to the World Cup of Football (soccer). (I see Bolivia claims to be a plurinational state too.)

    And what are the “Associated Free State of Puerto Rico,” Greenland, the Isle of Man, Monaco, Réunion, and the “sui generis collectivity” of New Caledonia, among many others?

  23. Well, yes, and the Isle of Man, and even (depending whom one talks to) Australia’s own Norfolk Island…

  24. There is an old joke that a language is a dialect with an army and navy. I do not think the Isle of Man or Norfolk Island make the cut. There has to be a minimum population before you qualify as a nation. I am not sure where and how the line should be drawn though. Perhaps an insouciant recipient of wasteful federal grants to political science could do a close study of population sizes versus levels of autonomy.

  25. How about “a population over one million and/or a seat at the UN”?

    Although c/f Will Rogers’s comment on the USSR getting an extra UN General Assembly vote by admitting Mongolia as a separate Republic: that the USA should retaliate by getting Oklahoma a seat under the name of “Outer Texas”.

  26. The separate votes of Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Belorussia were part of a deal that enabled South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand tog e separate seats. Not entirely unreasonably, the Soviets argued that Commonwealth realms were as much part of the British Empire in terms of their constitutions as Soviet republics were political subdivisions of the USSR. Apparently saying that Stalin was much more likely to exercise his prerogatives under the USSR constitution than George VI was to exercise his under the unwritten constitution of the British empire was not an easy diplomatic argument.

  27. Hit the button too early. The Mongol People’s Republic was never formally a subdivision of the USSR, although being surrounded entirely by China and the Russian Federation did not make for tremendously independent foreign or domestic policy. I’d guess both China’s and Russia’s historical experiences as subdivisions of the Mongol empire, Mongol territorial claims in Inner Mongolia, and Mongolia’s religious ties to traditional Tibet, did not make for especially friendly diplomacy but dictated that Mongolia would align with the USSR rather than China.

  28. What Alan said. I read that quote, some time in the 1970s, in a Reader’s Digest from the 1950s. Was unable to source even using Google.

    It does raise the question of what exactly is an “independent nation state”. Eg, New Caledonia is both an independent nation and a department of France. The High Court of Australia has ruled that British subjects have “allegiance to a foreign power” even though their monarch just happens to be the same person as Australia’s head of state.

    Perhaps we could fall back on numbers… eg, a “Level 1 polity” for a transnational empire/ federation (EU, USSR, British Empire/ Cwth, French Community), down to “Level 8” for English parish councils and American villages. Of course, some polities would cover two or more levels at once (eg, Berlin and the ACT being both a city and a state or equivalent).

  29. The British monarch is the same person as Australia’s head of state? No, no, no. In 1931, the unitary British monarchy throughout the empire was split into legally distinct crowns for each of the Commonwealth realms. The “Queen of Australia” and the “Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” are separate persons. Queen Elizabeth holds both titles. Could this change? The personal union of the United Kingdom and Hanover came to an end on 20 June 1837 when King William was succeeded in the United Kingdom by his niece, Victoria, and in Hanover by his brother, Ernest Augustus.

  30. Weirdly enough, from the Statute of Westminster to the Australia Act 1986, Australia had two queens. The queen of Australia acted in relation to the federal government on the advice of the prime minister. The queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland acted in relation to the states (mainly the appointment of governors, but also some legislative functions) on the advice of the British foreign secretary. The two queens were separate legal persons but both were Elizabeth II.

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