In 1952, Elizabeth II became the head of the commonwealth realms, including Canada. Technically, it was on that date that she became Canada’s Head of State, operating through the Governor General, her representative in Canada. In practice, the position of Governor General has been mostly ceremonial. Although they have the ability to veto bills passed by parliament, convention prevents them from exercising that ability. Additionally, they are responsible for dissolving parliament when recommended by the Prime Minister of Canada, and must sign every bill passed by Parliament into law. Strangely, the Governor General is appointed by the Prime Minister and has no actual responsibility toward Canada’s technical Head of State, Queen Elizabeth II.
There have been 11 Governor Generals since her majesty’s reign began in 1952, each one dutifully taking on their mostly ceremonial role. Every Governor General quietly sitting on the sidelines for most of the 60-years of Canadian history that have passed. Few people can name more than a couple off the top of their heads. I get Romeo LeBlanc, Adrienne Clarkson, and (the occasionally troublesome) Michaelle Jean. Surprisingly, the current Governor General, The Right Honourable David Johnston, is not the top name that comes to mind when asked about the identity of our Governor General.
It is regularly proposed that Canada should remove the Monarchy from its structure, and either officially place Head of State onto the role of the Prime Minister, or to make the Governor General an elected position. This would effectively transform the country into a Republic, similar to that of the United States or Russia. The transformation to a Republic would require a lot of alterations in law, including a great many minor wording changes. It would be expensive, difficult, and divisive, as a large number of people are still in favour of maintaining the Monarchy and people seem inherently frightened of change. On the other hand, I find it a horrible recurring expense to pay large sums to maintain a mostly ceremonial role through the Governor General (and the provincial Lieutenant Governors).
In this time of fiscal restraint, it may be time for people to begin to consider whether this role, and its related expenses, is truly necessary. Do we really need someone to sign their name and blindly follow the suggestions of the Prime Minister? Does this role still serve a real purpose, or are we holding on to it because it’s easier and we’re feeling sentimental? Should the role of Governor General be more thoroughly examined, with real responsibilities put in place to justify the expense, or are we satisfied with the status quo? With the Governor General’s ceremonial role being to greet, speak & visit with foreign dignitaries, would it make sense for them to head the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and eliminate that position from Cabinet & the political machinations of the ruling party, or would that be too much of a stretch? Does it make sense for the ruling party of the day to appoint the Governor General, or should we have them elected by the Canadians?
The position of Governor General is tightly tied into our current system of governance, and as the Queen’s representative in Canada, the role speaks of a history that many Canadians take for granted. With the Conservative Party of Canada reintegrating Monarchy as an integral aspect of Canadian life, for example by adding “Royal” back to “Canadian Air Force” amongst other things, it’s apparent that the position will not be removed any time soon. That does not mean that it shouldn’t be re-evaluated and retasked to provide a greater return on investment. A lot of Canadian Taxpayer’s dollars fund what has become a largely ceremonial position, and much like the Canadian Arctic or the long-gun registry, we need to find a way to properly use it, or we’d do better losing it. Change is needed throughout our government, and the position of Governor General should not be immune to reform.
Popularity: 100% [?]
I’ll just leave a few quick comments. First a correction: the Queen appoints the governor general (for the rest of this reply GG). In previous years the prime minister sent a shortlist of names for the Queen (or King) to select from. This made the position seem less partisan as ultimately the Queen had the realistic option of choosing who she felt could best represent her. The current Conservative government creates the shortlist in committee and then the PM selects his choice, which while a step up from the PM choosing alone still leaves the GG’s position lacking a certain credibility.
Now onto the cost. An important point is that no one is saying we should get rid of the GG’s position. Elected or not the cost would remain. The cost being about $1.53 per Canadian. As a comparison the National Gallery costs $1.43 per Canadian and the Senate costs $2.45 per Canadian. However, $1.53 is misleading as that is the cost of the GG and the provincial LGs. So the GG’s cost is significantly lower.
Now the GG’s role. It is estimated that the Royal Family, GG and LGs undertake about 4000 engagements per year in Canada. These engagements (of which greeting foreign dignitaries is a small part) include military ceremonies, anniversaries, grand openings, award ceremonies and other events as they may be invited. Now without the GG(and by extention the LGs) who will do these things? Shed light on important causes, organizations and individuals? The PM? A man who has about 40% of the country despising him? MPs? Who even fewer people can name? It doesn’t seem like a good trade. Then there’s the rarer but arguably more important role of handling a government in crisis. Michaelle Jean’s discision to follow PM Harper’s advice and prorogue parliament may not have been popular but there is one aspect that is often overlooked. She has stated that she placed two important restrictions on the prorogual 1. the time period had to be short 2. the budget had to be the first thing on the agenda when parliament resumed. Both points beg the question of what Harper actually asked for. And perhaps more importantly, going forward a convention has been established for how proroguals are to be handled. Something that did not exist before.
Now for the problem of Head of State elections. For one they’d be divisive both along party lines and regionally. More problematic it would give the GG licence to interfer in politics that does not exist currently. As it stands a GG can only interfer when the legitimacy of the PM is in doubt. The GG functions as a ‘constitutional fire extinguisher’ but otherwise leaves rewarding/punishing governments up to the voters. And finally we would replace a figure which no one has cause to take offence to with a partisan figure whos role will always be hampered by his partisan nature. I use ‘his’ deliberately because while we have a head of state who is female (our second actually) and GGs from prominent minorities our PMs have been (with a few exceptions) white, male and predominantly well-off. An appointed GG has allowed us to showcase our deversity in a way our PMs have not. There is little reason to think an elected GG would not follow a similiar pattern.
Finally theres the phychological effect on PMs from not being ‘top dog’. Former PM Kim Campbell has stated it is impossible for a PM to forget the Crown. It infuses the job. While the PM may try to sideline the GG unofficially, in all official capacities the PM is reminded that he too is a servant and not a master. The throne speech is a wonderful example of this. The GG (or monarch from time to time) sits atop a throne while the PM for all the cleverness, political wiles, half-truths and promises that got him this far sits on a stool off to the side. What’s more (and what could be seen as another role of the GG) they provide a place a PM can discuss issues with the assurance it isn’t going to be leaked or used maliciously.
By way of reforms here are my suggestions for:
-The PM: return to the former policy of sending the shortlist directly to the monarch. You gain nothing by having the GG seen as your personal appointment and Canadians lose a fair deal.
-The Media: Familiarize yourselves with our form of government for one. When Wikipedia has a more accurate article on Canada’s monarchy then what you report it is a sad day. Pay attention to what the GG and LGs do. Yes, its not as sexy as a 24 hour vote on the budget bill but its important work and, who knows, maybe you’ll find an issue the Royal Family, GG, or LGs champion that the government ignores. Perhaps you could use that to embarress them (if you must).
-The GG: stay in contact with your boss. When you don’t call she assumes you’re not having trouble (even though she pays attention to the politics in all her realms). She has a wealth of experience and unlike the PM doesn’t have an interest in you being sidelined.
“All of these military ceremonies, anniversaries, grand openings, award ceremonies, etc are purely ceremonial in nature, of little real worth or value beyond just looks. These ceremonies and celebrations may be alright for the morale of a very small and select group of individuals, but they don’t actually accomplish anything for the country itself. ”
We appear to have very different views on the importance of ceremony. A country’s role is not limited to the bread and butter issues of balancing the budget and making sure roads get paved. It includes bringing people together, instilling pride in one’s country and one’s history, showing the state has an interest in the welfare of the people and awarding those of long service to the good of community/province/country, and on occasion apologizing for past wrongs. Without these things the country devolves into a collection of individuals seeking their own advantage rather than any sort of unified whole. The state doesn’t have to do these things. It could if it was expedient rule on the basis of its monopoly on the use of force. It does them because it has a value beyond the monetary cost.
Case(s) in point: we send the someone (the GG but the Queen as well) to a ceremony in honour of those who died in WW1 in France. We don’t have to but the fact remains if we didn’t the sense of betrayal amoung veterans would be just as bad as that caused by ‘actual’ betrayal through cutting veteran services. Flying the GG to the remote arctic may cost money but when the former GG was there she was able to show solidarity with the Inuit by eating a peice of raw seal meat despite the near-racist cries from those who can’t see beyond a cute baby seal on an ice flow. She was able to shut such people up and at the same time say the Inuit are Canada’s people too. You asked in your article whether we kept the GG for sentimental reasons (ie. emotional ie. non-rational reasons). The answer is yes, that is part of it. But these are legitimate reasons to keep the Crown.
I agree on an event per event basis it is comparatively small groups. But you see this country is made up of small groups. If we had a single ceremony that was important to the whole country it would be nice but lacking that we make do with small groups.
52 million isn’t all that much either. Cut all MP salaries down to $100,000.00 and you save about half that(do something similiar in the provinces and you save the rest).
As for your other statement of finding something else for the GG to do. Keep in mind they do something by mere fact they keep power out of the hands of the PM (de jure) while allowing elected representatives to use that power (de facto).
Hmm? I think the wires got crossed in the comment section. I posted this conversation elsewhere where it fit the topic at hand.
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