The Constitutional and Political Aspects of the Office of the Governor General

By McWhinney, Edward | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Constitutional and Political Aspects of the Office of the Governor General


McWhinney, Edward, Canadian Parliamentary Review


On December 4, 2008, Governor General Michaelle Jean met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his request. The Governor General had broken off a State visit to three central European countries and returned to Ottawa the previous day to meet with the Prime Minister. The meeting was held in private and, in accord with long-standing practice, without any official minutes of the meeting. The Governor General granted the Prime Minister's request for an immediate Prorogation of Parliament, with the House of Commons, as had been indicated publicly by the Prime Minister, to resume on January 26, 2009. These events raised a number of questions about the role of the Governor General which are explored in this article.

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The office of Governor General is part of the historically "received" (British) constitutional heritage in Canada-what today is referred to as a Westminster-model constitution with its dualist executive system (titular head-of-state, and head of government). Its best surviving historical examples, apart from Great Britain itself, are in the "old" Dominions--Canada and Australia. It is replicated also, and continues to operate with a certain imaginative flair and capacity for pragmatic innovation in some former or present members of the Commonwealth, like Ireland and India, where after serious studies of the U.S. and Continental European models, it was chosen freely to adopt it, in preference to those other executive paradigm-models.

The bulk of the law governing the conduct of the Governor General of Canada is not to be found in the original British North America Act of 1867 (renamed in 1982 as the Constitution Act), but in the un-codified institutional practice of Great Britain going back a number of centuries, the so-called Conventions of the Constitution. This may be supplemented today by reference to practice in other, cognate Commonwealth countries that retain the Westminster paradigm model but that have had much more occasion than Great Britain or for that matter Canada in the often trial-and-error testing involved adapting old, even antique constitutional forms and processes to the rather different societal conditions and needs of today's society. It would have been possible, and no doubt sensible, to have attempted over all the years since 1867 and especially after the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, to codify the Office of Governor General and to try to establish the possibilities and also prudent limits of the discretionary powers of the Governor General, particularly in relation to the granting, or withholding, or later withdrawal of the mandate to form a government--the making and unmaking of governments. Certain continental European countries, with different legal-historical roots than Westminster, but with a not dissimilar dualist executive system, have done that in their new post-World War II constitutional systems, with some evident public success in reducing the risks of accusations of politically partisan decisions being directed against the head-of-state. The failure to act in Canada stems in part from that political inanition that one finds in countries that have no immediate major political, social, or economic crisis of the sort that generates public demand for fundamental constitutional change or even a new constitution. The few examples in Canada of ad hoc constitutional change in recent years, like the Fixed Elections date amendment to the Canada Elections Act, adopted in 2007, (1) have sometimes been misunderstood, as to their intent and purpose, notwithstanding their very clear and explicit statutory draftings. The 2007 amendment does not in fact provide any extra constitutional empowerment to the Governor General, whose Prerogative, discretionary powers, (such as they may be today, but including the power to dissolve Parliament), are expressly "saved" by the legislation.

One suggested way of at least politically if not also legally empowering the Governor General has been to have the office given the extra legitimacy, by having some system of election, direct or indirect, to it. …

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