Why Canadians should elect their Governor General

This column is an opinion by Charlotte Dalwood, a juris doctor student at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Law. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

A scandal involving workplace harassment and verbal abuse at Rideau Hall triggered former Governor General Julie Payette’s resignation in January. But the bigger scandal is that governors general are unaccountable to the Canadian people, and this one will not go away when Payette’s successor is sworn in – or until the position is reformed to make it an elected office.

It is essential there be such public accountability, because the Governor General wields substantial power, both at home and abroad.

Right now, oversight of Canada’s de facto head of state comes largely from the prime minister.

This starts with the selection of someone to fill the role. While the Queen approves her viceregal, she does so on the prime minister’s advice.

And the prime minister is under no obligation to consult the Canadian public before offering it. In Payette’s case, this allowed Justin Trudeau to choose a candidate whose history of mistreating staff his office had failed to identify.

Once the decision is made and a new governor general installed, it also falls on the prime minister to hold this figure accountable for their day-to-day activities. Canadians have few ways of providing this oversight themselves, since access to information laws do not apply to the Governor General’s office. This means the goings-on at Rideau Hall are largely hidden from the public.

Canadians must therefore take it on trust that the prime minister will not only monitor the Governor General to learn of any abuses of their powers as they occur, but also intervene to stop them.

WATCH | Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns after scathing workplace review:

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigned on Thursday after a scathing review about a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. The review followed CBC reporting into allegations of workplace harassment and bullying in the Governor General’s office. 2:50

Giving Canadians a direct say in who occupies the country’s highest government position, along with the ability to monitor their conduct, won’t rule out the possibility of future scandals occurring. But it would bring heightened accountability to the Governor General’s office, and strengthen the demands on the person holding it to perform their role in a way that promotes the public’s interests.

This is necessary in a democratic nation, considering the Governor General’s powers and responsibilities.

Domestically, this figure summons and dissolves Parliament, grants Royal Assent to federal legislation, and ensures Canada is never without a prime minister able to command the House of Commons’ support.

They hold reserve powers, such as the ability to unilaterally dismiss a government and veto proposed laws, that allow the Governor General to safeguard democratic norms.

The Governor General is also one of Canada’s key diplomatic representatives on the international stage. Via state visits to other countries, events at home to welcome visiting dignitaries, and other official means, the viceregal supports and advances Canada’s foreign policy objectives.

The office is thus far from a merely ceremonial one. Indeed, an incompetent or ineffective governor general could do real damage to Canada’s constitutional order and global stature.

Which is why the whole country has a stake in who carries out the duties of governor general, as well as in how that person does so.

WATCH | Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc says vetting process for Julie Payette’s replacement will be more robust:

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc says the Privy Council Office plans to advise Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the coming week on replacing the governor general. 7:04

Transitioning to an elected governor general would afford the electorate an opportunity to weigh in on both counts via regular votes. In order to secure re-election, governors general would need to ensure they are exercising their powers to Canadians’ satisfaction.

Occupying an elected post would also empower an incumbent governor general to act as a much-needed counterbalance to the prime minister’s power.

As an appointee under the current system, Canada’s unelected representative head of state cannot override the recommendations of its democratically elected head of government, except in the most unusual of situations, without contradicting Canadian democratic values. Constitutional convention therefore dictates that the Governor General will almost always defer to the prime minister’s advice.

A skilled prime minister can take advantage of this fact to manipulate the Governor General’s powers to advance their own agenda and undermine parliamentary opposition. In 2002, for example, then-prime minister Jean Chrétien asked the Governor General to prorogue parliament, avoiding the tabling of a report into the sponsorship scandal. In 2008 and again in 2009, then-prime minister Stephen Harper used the Governor General’s authority to prorogue Parliament and keep his minority government in power. Most recently, Prime Minister Trudeau requested Parliament be prorogued in August 2020 during the WE Charity controversy.

An elected viceregal, by contrast, would have an independent mandate from the Canadian people. This mandate would provide the Queen’s representative with a democratic basis for rejecting prime ministerial advice that does not reflect popular sentiment, advice that is particularly likely during periods of minority rule in the House of Commons.

In other words, by exercising greater oversight over their de facto head of state, Canadians would also be exercising greater oversight over their head of government.

And they would be doing it at the ballot box, which in a democratic society is where all of Canada’s leaders — including the Governor General — should be held to account.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *