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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Time to rethink the institution of Governor-General

Poor Mme Jean - she holds a post that is largely ceremonial and is suddenly thrust into the unaccustomed spotlight and asked to make a precedent-setting decision with massive constitutional ramifications. Regardless of how you feel about her decision, it's clear to me from the current constitutional brouhaha in Ottawa that we need to rethink the process that has given us the string of non-entities that have lately inhabited Rideau Hall.

Think back to recent Governors-General and try to remember a single one of them who inspired pride, patriotism or even enthusiasm. Ed Schreyer? Jeanne Sauve? Ray Hnatyshyn? Romeo Leblanc? Adrienne Clarkson? With all due respect to Mme Jean, who I think is doing a competent job, she's certainly not in the same league as Governors of the past - Vincent Massey or Georges Vanier, or the previous British office-holders like John Buchan (Baron Tweedsmuir), Field-marshal Viscount Alexander of Tunis, or Lord Byng of Vimy. We used to have war heroes or distinguished men of letters in Rideau Hall; now we get washed-up politicians or politically-correct CBC personalities.

When the current Governor-General's term expires, I have a modest suggestion for whoever chooses her successor: it's time for someone who can inspire us. Admittedly that will be difficult in a fractious & diverse country such as ours, but I have a few ideas.

The Constitution is vague on how the Governor-General should be chosen; Section III of the Constitution Act simply states that "the Executive Government and Authority of and over Canada is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen." (par. 9) and "the Provisions of this Act referring to the Governor General in Council shall be construed as referring to the Governor General acting by and with the Advice of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada." (par. 13). In additon, the Governor-General is to be commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces: "The Command-in-Chief of the Land and Naval Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue and be vested in the Queen." (par. 15) The Queen has the power to appoint the Governor-General but nowhere in the Constitution is it spelled out how the Governor-General is to be selected. That perogative rests with the Queen, but there is a long-standing convention that she appoints whoever is recommended to her by members of the Privy Council of Canada (in effect the government of Canada). So in effect, the Prime Minister chooses the candidate and recommends that person to the Queen.

How should we improve this process short of abolishing the office altogether (which would require the unanimous consent of the federal government and all ten of the provinces)? Since the Queen appoints the GG, all we need to do is codify a method of selecting the candidate, which could be done without any constitutional amendments. Here are two suggestions:

1. Elect the Governor-General

The candidate to be recommended to the Queen could be elected in a nationwide vote for a fixed term (currently five years). To avoid the partisan bickering that infests our multi-party Parliament, the successful candidate would have to receive 50% of the vote plus one. If necessary, a run-off election would be held between the top two candidates if any candidate failed to receive a majority; this would ensure that the winner had the support of the majority of Canadians. This method would also re-invigorate the institution of the GG and provide us with a representative of the Head of State and a Commander-in-Chief who had some respect and admiration. It would silence critics who are unhappy with the current institution and its un-democratic colonial overtones while still maintaining the link with the constitutional monarch.

2. Use an Electoral College

For those who think that directly electing the GG is a tad too republican, how about imitating our republican neighbours to the south and establishing an electoral college to choose the GG? The federal government and each provincial legislature could appoint electors who would then select the GG from a list of candidates put forward by the federal and provincial governments. The provinces would decide how their electors are selected. Or, if that's too radical, allow the Privy Council to select the candidate. The Privy Council consists of all living current and former federal cabinet ministers, the Chief Justices of Canada, and all former Governors-General, plus the Leader of the Opposition and often leaders or other members of opposition parties; definitely an experienced and diverse group.

I'm not a constitutional expert, but surely either of these methods would be an improvement over the current system. The institution of Governor-General is worth preserving, but if it is to command any respect from Canadians, especially in constitutional crises, it has to be seen as legitimate. So - Stephen Harper, or whoever is PM when the time comes: if you need my advice, call me.


Hishighness said...

You guys would hate an electoral college because Ontario and Quebec would get more seats than the rest of the country combined.

Kirby said...

I think we need to go further and drastically rethink the usefullness of the Westminster style parliamentary system.

This archaic system relies on unwritten conventions, many of these conventions are not our own. They rely on decision made by other unelected political appointments around the commenwealth.

I have felt this way for a while but mostly kept it to myself... now I am an out of the closet small "r" republican...

VW said...

Ray Hnatyshyn? Actually, people were quite enthusiastic about him, mainly because of his sense of fun. (I remember a photo of him having a horse laugh while seated in the Speaker's Chair of the House during his investiture.)

Jeanne Sauve? A quiet dignity. Considering her performance as Speaker of the House, it's hard to imagine someone more qualified by work experience to be GG.

Clarkson? Did her job just fine, name recognition helped a lot, although nowadays in Britain she'd be regarded as a joke. (Don't believe me? Tell a Brit that Canada's Head of State used to be an ex-television presenter named Clarkson. They'll think you're joking.)

One thing I should point out -- neither of your proposals logically connects to the ability to inspire. For example, Stephane Dion can inspire people (you only need look at Jason Cherniak). And yet no one would think of him as G-G.

Another thing: since the G-G is actually nominated by the PM, a choice of a poor one reflects very badly on the PM himself. Which is why a G-G has rarely been a backroom partisan hack.

Who should replace Jean (assuming she wants to step down after this term)? I could think of a few names. John Manley would be qualified. Peter Milliken. Gordon Campbell. Galen Weston, if you want to reach outside government. Izzy Asper. Heather Reisman.

Patrick Ross said...

I agree that the Governor General should be elected.

However, I would propose a 10-year term for the Governor General, to be held only when Parliament is in recess.

An electoral college could work. But I would propose a series of committees to approve individuals nominated by ordinary Canadian citizens, including an examination by the Supreme Court to ensure individuals nominated understand the role of the Governor General and can be expected to perform the role confident.

Not that I feel Michaelle Jean hasn't done a good job. I believe she has. But an appointed Governor General is increasingly falling out of step with the political realities of the country.