Inspired pick for Governor General .. but PM still shouldn’t be doing it all by himself

Aug 4th, 2005 | By | Category: Canadian Republic

OTTAWA. Thursday, August 4, 2005. So it would seem that the wily  federal Liberals in Canada have done the trick again.

In one sense it is impossible to object to Prime Minister Paul Martin’s pick as the new governor general – “48-year-old Montreal journalist Michel Jean – the first black woman ever to anchor a network TV news show in Quebec.” (Who was also born in Haiti, speaks five languages, and “is married to the well-respected Montreal documentary filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond.”)

Yet with a fractious Parliament that a governor general might still just have to tame soon enough, the deeper point remains. Canadians may very well be “going to fall in love with this woman,” as the Globe and Mail reports. But nowadays a prime minister, and especially one who heads only a minority government, should not be making such an appointment all by himself.

Late July Background … SOAP OPERA FALLOUT … a better way to choose the governor general of Canada (and who’s that again)?

[UPDATED TUESDAY, JULY 26.] Who knows just what may or may not happen when the fractious Canadian Members of Parliament return to work this fall? (And arguably enough it could prove to be not all that much, as things look at the moment, in the happy dead-middle of the summer?)

But one sign of the potential cutting edge forged by the spring 2005 soap opera on Parliament Hill is a July 18 Globe and Mail comment piece on “a better way to choose our governor general,” by Peter Donolo – former “director of communications for prime minister Jean Chrtien from 1991 to 1999.”

The quick background here is that, as the Canadian Press has recently explained, at some point over the past few months the present Governor General Adrienne Clarkson “could have been called on to decide how to proceed if the House of Commons had reached a stalemate or had voted no confidence” in Prime Minister Paul Martin. By all accounts she was more than up to the task. But Mme Clarkson will be retiring soon, and Mr. Martin has to replace her no later than September. According to a July 25 report on CBC TV, he could be announcing his decision about just who the replacement will be within the next “week to 10 days.”

All this has rather suddenly raised some awkward questions about how and why the governor general is currently chosen by the prime minister alone. And, on Peter Donolo’s provocative argument, it presents Prime Minister Martin with “a real opportunity” to nobly cast aside his almost historically accidental singular power in this context, and “make a significant contribution to Canada’s political development – indeed, to borrow a phrase from one of his speeches, to make history’.”

“All the stuff about the constitutional role of the Governor General …”

The office of “Governor General and Commander in Chief of Canada” is not well understood nowadays. (And it doesn’t seem to have helped all that much when the present incumbent explained that the “Governor General is one skein in the woven fabric of what Eugene Forsey characterised as our independent sovereign democracy.'”)

In an earlier era the point was clear enough. From the start of the present confederation in 1867 down to more or less the middle of the 20th century, the Governor General of Canada was a British aristocrat, appointed by the government of the United Kingdom, to act as the overseeing resident local representative of the Queen (or King, as the case may be), in the first self-governing British dominion of Canada.

But then as Mme Clarkson has also explained: “Canada’s institutions have never been static. They are organic – evolving and growing in ways that surprise and even startle us. In a mere 30 years, between 1952 and 1982, we repatriated the Governor Generalship and our Constitution. We adopted our flag, we formalized our understanding of Rights and we strengthened and expanded the bilingual nature of our country.”

All this is very well, you might say. But just what is the governor general of Canada supposed to be doing under the new dispensation, brought to us by the “mere 30 years, between 1952 and 1982?” The answer generally seems to have been growing increasingly obscure over the past quarter of a century. Yet the turbulent Canadian Parliament in the spring of 2005 has now brought at least one side of what has long been seen as a question with no serious relationship to the real world in any case down to earth.

As the Canadian Press has said, one of the continuing constitutional responsibilities of the governor general of Canada is “to decide how to proceed” if a Parliament in which no single political party has a governing majority of seats reaches “a stalemate.” And as the latest razor-thin episodes of Liberals + New Democrats + independents (?) vs. Conservatives + Bloc Quebecois + independents (?) have now shown – at least close enough to impress those paying the most attention – this actually could become a highly practical matter.

The initial implication for whatever remains of the present Parliament is that whoever succeeds Governor General Clarkson probably needs a certain degree of requisite tribal knowledge about this rare practical function of the office. Or, as political scientist Richard Simeon has explained, in something that approaches the language of today: “You want someone who is politically sophisticated, who kind of understands all the stuff about the constitutional role of the Governor General.”

An office this important shouldn’t be filled the way we’re filling it now?

In the Canadian media all this at first led to some particular constitutional handicapping of such rumoured candidates for replacing Governor General Clarkson as James Bartleman, Ed Broadbent, Joe Clark, Marc Garneau, Flora MacDonald, Preston Manning, David Peterson, and Bob Rae. (A big maple-leaf-flag prize if you actually do know who all these people are. And, according to the latest July 25 report on CBC TV, at least Bartleman, Clark, Garneau, and Manning are now off the list in any case.)

But then on July 18 former prime minister Jean Chretien’s former communications director Peter Donolo shrewdly pointed out in the Globe and Mail that the bigger and deeper question in the summer of 2005 “lies not in who is selected as governor general, but how he or she is chosen.”

Put another way, as matters stand (and in the words of an eminent old textbook), the governor general “is appointed by the Queen by commission under the Great Seal of Canada on the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada.” Which means that for all practical purposes the prime minister appoints the governor general all by himself (or herself, as the case may be).

Going straight to the bottom of things today, the present Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was chosen by Jean Chretien, who is now retired and out of the ordinary political fray. But the governor general who will be succeeding Mme Clarkson this fall, more or less just as the 38th Parliament resumes its sitting, will be chosen by Paul Martin, who is very much still in the middle of the ongoing Ottawa soap opera – that had so many melodramatic episodes this past spring, and just might pick up where it left off when the MPs return from summer holidays.

The ultimate practical crux of the unique constitutional role the governor general might have to exercise in any turbulent minority Parliament is, in effect, to decide who should get the chance to try to be prime minister in a stalemate. But how can a governor general that Paul Martin chooses alone finally make an altogether credible decision of this sort in the eyes of his current prime ministerial rivals – especially Stephen Harper, no doubt, but also Jack Layton or even, in principle, Gilles Duceppe? (And ultimately again in the eyes of the people of Canada, who elect all the Members of Parliament, and are the practical sovereign power in the country today?)

As it happens, the prime minister of Canada has wound up effectively appointing the governor general of Canada through a kind of a historical accident, to which almost no one has as yet given a great deal of thought. At the time of confederation the British prime minister effectively appointed the Canadian governor general. As Canada finally became fully and altogether independent from the British government by the middle of the 20th century, the job passed to the Canadian prime minister, on the basis of a kind of literary analogy.

Abstract legends about the prime minister’s “friendly dictatorship” aside, ordinarily this is not a real problem. Yet when you get down to the sort of unusual razor-thin minority parliament where “all the stuff about the constitutional role of the Governor General” actually comes into play, the haphazard literary analogy does not seem to make much practical sense. It is arguably even somewhat corrupt – at a time when complaints about government corruption are in the air on other counts as well, of course.

In such rare but (as Canadians today have begun to see) not impossible things as Parliamentary stalemates, the governor general is meant to finally bring some broader conception of the public interest to bear on the perhaps almost inevitably sordid calculations of the ordinary political fray. Someone appointed by an imperial prime minister across the seas might reasonably pretend to do such a thing. But how can someone appointed by the local prime minister of the day, already deeply immersed in all the sordid calculations, seriously play such a role with decisive credibility – when and if push finally does come to shove? (As it conceivably still just might in Canada today, over the fall and winter of 20052006.)

Proposals for changing the selection procedure – short-term and long-term


Even before former Chretien aide Peter Donolo came up with a proposal for addressing this problem in the July 18 Globe and Mail, veteran Ottawa journalist John Ibbitson had alluded to it in one of his regular columns for the same newspaper. Prime Minister Martin, Ibbitson suggested some time ago now, should at least be running his ultimate choice to succeed Governor General Clarkson this fall by his principal opponent in the present turbulent Parliament, Stephen Harper.

(That way the two men most directly affected by any stalemate-resolving decision the new governor general might have to make would  have had some say in his or her appointment. And neither could complain that whatever decision might be made was unfair – or unduly biased in favour of the person who effectively made the appointment.)

Peter Donolo’s July 18 proposal is somewhat more elaborate than this. He asks: “What if instead of the governor general being the pick of one person, he or she were the choice of 308 members of Parliament, representing every corner of Canada? Rather than take the traditional approach, the government could propose a candidate for governor-general to Parliament. Or it could propose a short list of candidates from which Parliament would choose. It could even, as is done in the selection of the Speaker of the House of Commons, allow names to be nominated from the floor of Parliament itself.”

In fact, under the usual circumstances in Ottawa this would quite arguably be not all that radically different from what happens now. If a single party did have a majority in the House, e.g., its members would wind up choosing the governor general. And if the usual party discipline were in effect, the leader of this party would in effect make the choice. And this leader by definition, as it were, would already be prime minister, because he would command the support of the majority of the House. To give Mr. Donolo’s proposal any real weight and heft in this context, it would somehow have to be specified that all parliamentary votes for governor general were free votes – where the usual party discipline does not apply.


Others again might protest that Mr. Donolo’s proposed “better way to choose the governor general” is at best a short-term solution. It makes sense as something simple and straightforward that Prime Minister Martin might do right now, in the case of whoever he does finally choose to replace Mme Clarkson. But confining the choice to the members of the present Canadian federal House of Commons in Ottawa is not necessarily the altogether best way of choosing the governor general over the longer term.

Peter Donolo, e.g., urges that: “Several established parliamentary democracies around the world – including Germany, India, Greece, Israel and Italy – select their ceremonial heads of state in such fashions.” But in Canada’s continuing fellow Commonwealth of Nations member of India, to take just one case in point, both the federal and state legislatures or parliaments participate in the selection of the ceremonial head of state. If Canada is going to ultimately follow this kind of model, both members of the federal Parliament in Ottawa and the provincial legislatures across the country ought to be involved in the decision. (And this would arguably be in the best traditions of modern Canadian federalism as well.)

Moving the bar up somewhat more radically again, it is equally arguable that the best and certainly most democratic method of selecting the governor general in the Canadian federation of the future would be by popular vote, among the same Canada-wide electorate that chooses the members of the federal Parliament.

Mr. Donolo alludes to this prospect indirectly in his July 18 Globe and Mail article, but seems to dismiss it as too much of “an implicitly more American approach.” Ireland, however, has been choosing its ceremonial head of state this way for well over half a century now. While it is no longer a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, it does retain the same kind of British or “Westminster-style” parliamentary democracy that Canada has today. And after several decades Ireland’s popularly elected head of state has not brought it any closer at all to the quite different US model of democratic government.

Yet whatever you may finally think of any of these criticisms, Peter Donolo no doubt deserves some kind of valuable prize for urging his broader parliamentary selection procedure for the governor general on Prime Minister Paul Martin right now. It is something within the prime minister’s current powers, under the flexible unwritten part of the present Constitution – and could be done without any complex and time-consuming constitutional amendments. It would help resolve an increasingly noticeable and important credibility problem with the present procedure for selecting a Canadian governor general in the short term.

As Mr. Donolo also alludes to in a broader context, it “would get the ball discreetly but inexorably rolling” towards any more effective approaches to the problem over the longer term. And it might even help show an increasingly sceptical and disengaged sovereign people of Canada that there actually is some high-minded and forward-looking public concern about the country’s longer-term future in Ottawa today.

How a better selected governor general will at last become the first president of a new Canadian Republic?

Especially cynical observers of Canadian politics might well wonder whether Prime Minister Paul Martin would actually be interested in taking any kind of advice from a former communications director for former prime minister Jean Chretien?

Yet Peter Donolo links his current unsolicited but wise counsel on choosing the governor general with another longer-term issue for the Canadian future that gives it continuing relevance, regardless of what Prime Minister Martin may or may not do over the next few months.

As Mr. Donolo explains at the end of his July 18 piece: “Most important of all … bringing Parliament into the selection of the governor general would establish a process and set a precedent for the future, when Canada replaces her foreign monarch with a Canadian head of state.”

And he goes on: “That time is probably not long off. Support for the monarchy in Canada continues to decline. In April of this year, a Globe and Mail poll showed 55 per cent of Canadians agreeing with the statement when Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends, Canada should end its formal ties to the British Monarchy.’ Given Canada’s history and maturity, its strong sense of national identity and pride, and its ever-increasing diversity, this trend is natural and healthy.”

Put somewhat differently, arranging some better or best way of choosing the present Governor General and Commander in Chief of Canada, over the next several years, will at last give the country a proper prototype for an altogether independent head of state in a parliamentary democratic republic – that almost certainly also lies as some kind of latent manifest destiny in Governor General Clarkson’s continuing Canadian pattern of “organic … evolving and growing in ways that surprise and even startle us.”

Surviving partisans of the now aging Monarchist League of Canada will of course object (as their predecessors did when Lester Pearson at last introduced an independent Canadian flag in 1965). But another thing any serious pondering of the current practical role of the governor general in the country today makes increasingly clear is that the old British monarchy really does nothing of serious consequence for Canada in the 21st century. (Any practical powers and functions “the monarch” does retain in our present Canadian system of government are now all practically exercised by the governor general.)

The increasingly metaphysical and insubstantial connection with this very last of the old colonial British North American institutions was not done away with at the end of Mme Clarkson’s “mere 30 years, from 1952 to 1982,” for what seemed good enough transitional reasons at the time – and probably were. But beyond fading sentimental attachments among some parts of the population to the good Queen Elizabeth II, it is increasingly hard to see the logic of the so-called continuing constitutional monarchy in the Canada of the 21st century – as the opinion polls already do reflect.

Whatever Paul Martin may or may not do with Peter Donolo’s unsolicited but wise advice on choosing the governor general over the next few months, the advice will survive as a provocative and interesting early contribution to a Canadian debate that is bound to grow at least quietly more important, over the next number of years. And so, it could be said, some good actually has come out of the spring 2005 soap opera in Canadian federal politics. And who really knows? Maybe more will follow.

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