Who really believes PM Harper’s new panel to ensure ‘non-partisan’ vice regal appointments will fix the problem?

Nov 5th, 2012 | By | Category: Canadian Republic

Ontario Lieutenant Governor David Onley talks with Premier Dalton McGuinty at Police Memorial Ceremony of Remembrance in Queen’s Park, May 6, 2012.

Among other things, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s recent prorogation of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario has re-surfaced growing concerns about just how governors general of Canada and lieutenant governors of the provinces are chosen nowadays.

As the Canadian Press has explained : “Former governor general Michaelle Jean came under intense scrutiny for twice agreeing to controversial prorogations by beleaguered minority Harper governments in 2008 and 2009 … And Ontario’s Lt.-Gov. David Onley faced some pointed questions last month after green-lighting minority Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty’s request to prorogue Queen’s Park in the midst of scandal.”

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper perhaps telling a fish story to Governor General Michaelle Jean (appointed by former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin) at public event in Ottawa towards the end of her term, in April 2010. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

The bottom-line worry here is that today  governors general of Canada and lieutenant governors of the provinces are effectively appointed by the federal prime minister, who is also the partisan leader of a political party. And they consequently lack the credibility or legitimacy to stand up to prime ministers and premiers, when the norms of our parliamentary democracy suggest they ought to.

With all this in mind, and spurred on by the new Ontario variation on the prorogation theme, the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa (the PM himself, remember, is in India at the moment, admiring the Taj Mahal) has announced that the federal government “is creating a new advisory committee to help … choose candidates for vice regal appointments such as the governor general. “ This “committee will make non-binding recommendations [to the Prime Minister] when openings occur either in the provinces and territories or at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.”

Current Governor General David Johnston, appointed by Stephen Harper to succeed Michaelle Jean on October 1, 2010, shown here in 1963 when he was captain of the Harvard University hockey team.

The new committee “will be headed by Kevin McLeod, Canada’s long-standing secretary to the Queen …  It will also have two permanent federal members [historian Robert Watt, who served as chief herald of Canada from 1988 to 2007, and Jesuit priest Jacques Monet, a theologian and historian], along with two temporary regional members each time a provincial lieutenant governor must be replaced.” The “committee is designed to ensure a ‘non-partisan consultation process’ to identify a list of possible candidates” from which the Prime Minister will then make the final choice (as he or she already does now!).

As many (well some anyway) may remember, Prime Minister “Harper previously set up an ad hoc committee [of a similar sort] that led to the appointment of Gov. Gen. David Johnston in 2010.”  Yet the key question remains. Is this anything more than window dressing, that finally does nothing of consequence to enhance the credibility and legitimacy of governors general and lieutenant governors, in controversial circumstances where the so-called “reserve powers” of the office ought to be brought to bear on the democratic decision-making process?

PM Jean Chretien and his unusual choice as governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, just after the announcement her appointment in September 1999.

Our own answer to this question is a clear and simple NO. The new committee IS just window dressing. A cynic might even argue that, in the eyes of more than a few Canadians of the early 21st century, even a non-binding recommendation from such individuals as a former “chief herald” and “a theologian” will only further detract from the already impaired credibility and legitimacy of the governor general or lieutenant governor involved. (And in the very end it will still be a partisan federal prime minister making the appointment in any case.)

We instead agree with a comment writer on the CBC News website report about the new committee. He (or she?) goes under the nom de guerre of “present,” and writes “Elect the GG with a national election, give him/her the mandate to balance the PM.” (Or, we might say ourselves, the mandate to  at least stand up to the PM, or Premier in the case of the LG, in those still comparatively rare instances where this is required, to ensure the continuing health of our Canadian parliamentary democracy.) We would also conclude by pointing those who may have still further questions about this kind of proposal to two earlier articles on the subject by our own recently appointed managing editor: “Let’s elect our head of state” and “Electing governor general is only option that finally makes sense.” Of course, we don’t expect PM Harper to pay any attention to what finally makes sense here.  But …  a little further down the road … say, after the federal election of 2015?

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