Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Debate 2010 - Elected Governor General

Courtesy of David Mader:
(Counter argument Against Electing Governor General here)

Let’s be honest: if we were designing our political system from scratch, we wouldn’t design the one we have now. It has too many quirks, too many vestiges of its haphazard thousand-year development. Many of the quirks are politically harmless—that is, they don’t interfere with the functioning of our democracy—and their pedigree gives them a lasting value; or, if we’re not especially interested in tradition, we can at least abide those quirks that don’t get in the way. (Think the Black Rod.)

But some of the quirks aren’t harmless. Some episodes in our long political development have left us with second-best institutions. We get by—because it’s tradition, and it’s the way things are, and besides, it’s so hard to change. But it’s not the way we’d choose to do things now.

I think one of these harmful quirks is playing a role in the prorogation brouhaha—though that particular mess has many fathers. I’m talking about the combination of executive and legislative power in one political institution. Once it was the Crown that held these powers in tandem, but as the nobility and later the moneyed common classes agitated for their rights, the responsibility of legislation passed almost entirely to the Parliament at Westminster. (I simplify, of course. A web has always connected the Crown to Parliament. But I think the basic point is valid.) This division created a balance: the Crown, as executive power, held the political reins, but consent of Parliament was important, and ultimately necessary.

But the pendulum swung too far. It may have been the explosion of the middle and then the lower classes; or the emergence of recognizably modern democratic and liberal ideas; or the poor performance of a succession of foreign monarchs. Whatever the cause, Parliament grew ever more powerful, and the role of the Crown steadily diminished. The office of prime minister grew from a novelty to a quasi-executive station: at once leader of the House of Commons and de facto bearer of the executive seal. The old forms are maintained, but the Crown has been hollowed, and now practically every independent exercise of power by the executive branch risks a constitutional crisis. The only check is tradition, and shame; but who has time for either of those anymore?

It’s time to return executive power to the executive branch. As long as one person can at once control the executive branch—appointing ministers, applying and enforcing laws, managing the public service—and at the same time control the legislative branch—directing legislation, appointing committee chairs and members—the balance of power is broken and a prime minister can reign unchecked.

It’s time to have an executive officer who acts like an executive officer—not just a ceremonial figurehead. But what if the Governor General had done just that last month? What if she had said no to prorogation? A crisis, without doubt. And believe you me, the next Tory campaign wouldn’t have been against Michael Ignatieff. It would have been against that unelected, undemocratic Liberal Party operative MichaĆ«lle Jean, defying the peoples’ elected representative (so they’d say).

No, we can’t hand executive power to a political appointee. And though my idea to offer the Crown to Prince Harry has provoked a chuckle or two, there’s little appetite for an hereditary monarchy in this day and age. If we’re to have an executive that acts like an executive—and we should—then it’s time to elect our governor general.

Here’s what I have in mind, though the specifics are less important, I think, than the principle. The governor general represents the Crown in Canada; but because a modern state derives its just power from the consent of the governed, our chief executive also represents us—the people of Canada. As such, all the people of Canada ought to have a say in his or her selection; in other words, the governor general should be chosen in a regular, national election. (We can debate the precise electoral mechanism another time, as I suspect I am perfectly alone in preferring a weighted rather than straight-proportional vote, since the latter would inevitably result in a prime minister chosen by Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.) The governor general would select a cabinet from the ranks of all qualified Canadians, whether or not they have successfully navigated partisan waters to find a seat in the House. She would be free to propose legislation, and her signature would be needed for a bill to become law—subject, of course, to a legislative over-ride. She would direct our nation’s foreign affairs, command her armed forces, manage her finances, and oversee the operations of our fine civil service. She would represent us abroad, and inspire us at home. She would be the prima inter pares—the First Canadian.

And what of Parliament? It would return to its roots: it would legislate. The governor general could propose whatever legislation she wanted, but it would still have to be introduced, and debated, and passed, by the men and women elected to represent our nation’s diverse constituencies. There would still be political parties, and they would still campaign like cats and dogs, and they would still call each other names, and they would still be as flawed as legislators everywhere always are, and always have been. But they’d have the chance to be more. Free of the chief executive’s whip, out from the shadow of the cabinet, unafraid of losing their nomination papers, they’d have a chance to be legislators again. The governor general would propose her legislation, but it would be up to the House to decide whether it would pass. And when. And in what form. And if they were feeling particularly frisky they could do it all themselves—introduce their own bills, and debate them, and pass them—and it would be the executive who’d have to swallow the bitter pill. And as each side got used to its new powers, there would be horse-trading, wheeling and dealing, cajoling, pressuring, negotiation—my goodness, there would be democracy. Wouldn’t that be something.

I recognize that it’s all pie in the sky since, they tell me, constitutional change is so hard, and so politically unpalatable. I’m not so sure, frankly—our Constitution already contemplates an independent executive branch, and it wouldn’t be so hard to present the Queen with a list of one (1) name selected by the Canadian people. But of course this one change would require many more, and it’s certainly not the only political reform we’d adopt, if we could. In any case I’m not an expert on the subject. It’s easy to argue that we could never make the change. The more difficult argument, I think, is that we shouldn’t.

Oh—and in my dreamworld? The governor general doesn’t get to prorogue.

Filed under DebateJan2010 and DavidMaderEntry


jaycurrie said...

That system has not worked out all that well in the US David.

Combining the role of Chief Executive and Head of State into a single elected office gets you the American Presidency without nearly the counterweight of Congress. (US Senators are very powerful indeed.)

Mader said...

I don't know, Jay - if nothing else, it's been working poorly since 1789, and the USofA seems to have done pretty well for itself in the interim. I agree, though, that further legislative reform would be desirable, and maybe necessary, to make it especially workable. I avoided senate reform in my opening, but may touch on it in my response.

Robert Ede said...


Elect the Governor General!!
(suggestion on mechanics in link below)

Eureka, I've found you.

You're the only one (else)in all of Canada I've heard discussing the ramifications of the step by step usurpation of the Privy Council and the subsequent "hollowing out" of the Office of GG.

Wonderful post.

You might like:

or a faux Royal Proclamation (in style of Quebec Act 1774: