Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Debate 2010 - Rebuttal of Unelected Governor General

Courtesy of David Mader:
(Rebutting Sir Francis' proposal for Appointing a Governor General here)

In our introductory essays, Sir Francis and I laid out our preferred modes of democratic reform. In this short essay I'll respond directly to Sir Francis's proposal regarding the appointment of a constitutional expert to a restored and robust executive office.

First, though, I think it's instructive to note the breadth of our agreement. Some commenters have suggested that the appropriate reform is abolition of the governor general's office in favour of a pure parliamentary government. In this line of reasoning, the involvement of a quasi-executive official only complicates the political process, and bolstering that executive office would needlessly increase the points of power within the political system. Better, it is said, to assign all political power to Parliament, and then reform the method by which that body regulates itself.

There's merit to this approach, and we could explore it at length in another debate. Importantly, though, both Sir Francis and I agree that abolition isn't the answer, and that re-empowering the governor general's office promises to increase, rather than decrease, political transparency and stability. We both seek a check on the prime minister's political power--as Sir Francis puts it, a check imposed by an officer who stands at once inside and outside the political system: inside the broad constitutional framework but outside of the day-to-day politicking that defines Parliament.

Our narrow disagreement focuses on the manner in which the re-empowered governor general ought to be chosen. I've made my case for national election, and I look forward to Sir Francis's critique of my proposal. For his part, Sir Francis proposes selection by the Queen from a short-list presented by the prime minister--the same basic system we have now. Sir Francis would impose his reforms by restricting eligibility for office through the introduction of specific requirements--namely constitutional expertise (especially academic expertise), and non-partisanship. Such a system, Sir Francis argues, would populate the governor general's office with individuals who are at once thoughtful and intelligent enough to wield the restored and reinforced executive powers of that office, and at the same time independent enough to resist transient political pressures and to exercise the executive powers wisely and objectively.

It's not a bad system, and though I'll critique it I want to make clear that I think it would be an improvement over what we have now. But I still would prefer an elected system along the lines I first proposed. Here's why.

Sir Francis argues that non-partisanship is necessary to ensure the independent exercise of executive power; a partisan, he suggests, will (at best) roll over in the face of
pressure from the prime minister and the executive branch--or at worst take positive steps to further the prime minster's partisan agenda. Only a confirmed non-partisan can be expected to stand up to a bully politician.

But this approach assumes that a constitutional expert with no previous partisan affiliation will harbour no partisan--or, worse, ideological--positions. And I don't think that's true; to the contrary, I think that Sir Francis's required qualifications would limit the governor general's office to a small cadre of Canadians who are overwhelmingly likely to share a narrow set of political and ideological assumptions. After all, we're essentially talking about hyper-educated, urban lawyers. Such folks could undoubtedly put a check on Stephen Harper's exercise of power. Can we expect them to check Michael Ignatieff just as well?

But perhaps I'm being unfair to our nation's constitutional scholars. Perhaps the pool of qualified applicants would include non-partisans who lean 'conservative' as well as non-partisans who lean 'liberal.' And yet if that's the case, what would stop an appointing prime minister from nominating a candidate who was otherwise entirely qualified--and who also happened to share that prime minister's philosophy of government? The result, of course, would be a governor general who appeared independent but who in fact could be expected to exercise the executive power precisely as the appointing prime minister would want.

My point is that the notion of a non-partisan technocrat is a bit of a fallacy. I hasten to add, again, that there would at least be a greater chance of independence from a non-partisan constitutional expert than from an obvious political crony. But I don't think that likelihood is all too large, and I submit that the result of the reform would be a system much like the one we have now.

Moreover, I'm not sure that non-partisanship should be our goal. I know there is a great deal of cynicism regarding our political class, and especially about the main political parties. I share much of that cynicism. But partisanship has a purpose, even if the particular parties themselves are uninspiring. We're talking about the exercise of executive political power. Necessarily, that exercise will involve discretion--in other words, a restored governor general will be confronted with decisions to use, or not to use, his power, and decisions regarding how best to use it. Constitutional law and tradition may provide a framework, or even a guide; but it is not definitive. Decisions will have to be made. Reasonable people will disagree about how those decisions ought to be made. Disagreements may track ideological lines, or they may track pragmatic lines. Observers will find themselves in broad camps of opinion. In such a circumstance a governor general will have to make a decision--and in doing so, he will have to take sides. Given that necessity, wouldn't it be better to know a priori--from the beginning--how a governor general would approach these types of decisions? Shouldn't Canadians have an opportunity to decide for themselves--whether directly through elections, or indirectly through the prime minister--what sort of governor general they want?

That's what parties do--they provide a shorthand for a candidate to declare his general political philosophy. A non-partisan, by contrast, is a political poker player--he holds his cards close to his chest. But he still has cards. I think we should see 'em.

Finally, while I hesitate to get too deep into the question of democratic legitimacy, and the associated debates over consent theory and other philosophical conundrums, I do think there's something worthwhile about giving Canadians a direct role in selecting the chief executive. A governor general selected under Sir Francis's reforms would still be selected, ultimately, by the prime minister--that is, by a member of parliament elected by a single constituency and empowered by the private and internal leadership rules of his particular political party. Surely there's value in placing executive power in the hands of someone chosen directly by a majority of Canadian voters?

Sir Francis is right, of course, that the quality of our governor general would depend, in such a case, on the quality of the candidates put forward by the major political parties--which have hardly been known for their stellar candidates, of late. But that's less of a problem with an elected system per se, and more of a problem with the quality of our political class. And insofar as Sir Francis seeks a better class of candidate, I'm happy to heartily agree.

Filed under DebateJan2010 and DavidMaderEntry

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