Governor General must be an independent, impartial guardian of Canada’s democracy – Prime Minister should not be choosing alone

Choice of next Governor General should be democratized and Canadianized to celebrate 150th anniversary of Canada’s federal government

All federal parties should agree on key rules of Parliament before next election to prevent confused situation that B.C. is going through now, as 80% of voters and the current Governor General want

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Wednesday, July 5, 2017

OTTAWA - Today, as part of its Democratic Head Campaign, Democracy Watch called on Prime Minister Trudeau to democratize and Canadianize the choice of the next Governor General. Like the Officers of Parliament, the Governor General (GG) must be independent of the Prime Minister because s/he makes many key decisions about the operations of Parliament and the government, and so the Prime Minister should not be choosing the GG alone as that taints the position with partisanship.

To democratize the selection of the Governor General, Democracy Watch has proposed that an independent committee (whose members are approved by all federal party leaders in the House of Commons) conduct a public, merit-based search for a shortlist of three nominees for GG, and then at least all federal party leaders should approve the choice of GG or, even better given that the GG appoints the Lieutenant Governors of each province, Prime Minister Trudeau should send the shortlist of nominees to the party leaders of each legislature and have them rank the nominees. The GG would be the person who receives the most votes from this ranked ballot vote.

To Canadianize the selection of the Governor General, Democracy Watch proposes that the Prime Minister should not request that Queen Elizabeth approve of the person chosen through the above process. The Queen does have to approve the person formally, but if the Prime Minister does not request the approval, and the Queen accepts being told, then a new constitutional convention will be established that Canada chooses its own Head of State. This will be a small but significant step toward full independence for Canada.

“Prime Minister Harper appointed his own advisory committee for choosing the Governor General but it was a charade as he could ignore the committee’s nominees and he controlled the final choice. Given how important it is for the Governor General to be independent of the Prime Minister and impartial, Prime Minister Trudeau must involve opposition parties in choosing the Governor General, and it would be even better to involve party leaders from across Canada given that the Governor General appoints the Lieutenant Governors in each province,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “Prime Minister Trudeau should also tell the Queen who Canada has chosen as Governor General, and not ask her approval, and if she accepts that as the new protocol it will become clear that Canada chooses its own head of state.”

As well, Democracy Watch called on federal party leaders in the House of Commons to agree on public, written rules for a minority government, as more than 80% of Canadians want and as Britain’s Parliament did seven years ago with its 110-page Cabinet manual. Agreeing on and writing down the rules now (and making them law as soon as possible) will help ensure the legislature runs fairly and democratically through to the next election.

The rules should make clear: which party will get to try governing first after the next election; when the legislature will open; when it can be closed; what a vote of non-confidence is; when and how the opposition parties may get a chance to govern and; when and how the next election can be called before the fixed election date. (See Backgrounder below for the eight rules)

In England, Australia and New Zealand, political party leaders and MPs agreed years ago to clear, public rules so what happens after an election is fair for all the parties, and for voters. Most countries in the world also have clear, public post-election rules.

As well, a survey of more than 2,000 Canadians by Harris-Decima in November-December 2012 showed that 84% of adult Canadians want enforceable rules to restrict key powers of the Prime Minister and provincial premiers.

The Governor General also said last August in an interview with the Hill Times that he thought these unwritten constitutional conventions should be written down.

“Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s politicians and public know the rules for its minority government because its rules are written but B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor, politicians and public don’t because its rules are unwritten,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “As in B.C., if federal party leaders don’t agree to written rules before the next election, several constitutional crises will very likely happen with politicians, lawyers and academics having ridiculous arguments, and the unelected, unaccountable Governor General forced to make decisions, based on conflicting opinions about unwritten rules. Meanwhile, in Britain everyone will be following clear, written rules.”

“Nobody knows for sure what an unwritten rule says, and that’s why Britain, Australia, New Zealand and most other countries have written down their key constitutional rules,” said Conacher. “It’s clearly in the public interest that the federal rules be written down to stop unfair abuses of power by the ruling parties that will violate the rights of the legislature and the democratic will of the majority of voters right through the next election.”

For example, Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s politicians and public all know that the only way an election can occur before the next fixed election date under Britain’s Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is if at least two-thirds of MPs vote in favour of a motion to call an early election or if a resolution is passed that states the legislature has no confidence in the government and that resolution is not reversed within 14 days. Many commentators claimed Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May called a “snap” election but she didn’t – she proposed an early election and more than two-thirds of MPs approved her proposal.

In contrast, B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor, politicians and public do not know how the next election could happen – which gives the unelected B.C. Lieutenant Governor enormous, unaccountable power (and the situation is the same at the federal level. The current rules in Canada are unclear because they are unwritten constitutional conventions – even constitutional scholars disagree what lines they draw (and, as a result, a large majority of scholars agree they should be written down). The vagueness in the rules effectively allows the Prime Minister and premiers and their ruling parties to abuse their powers and violate the rules, as the only way to stop violations is for the unelected, unaccountable Governor General and Lieutenant Governors to decide that a violation has occurred and to try to stop the elected Prime Minister or Premier from doing what they want.

The Governor General has almost never stopped a Prime Minister from doing whatever they want, and have allowed premiers to abuse their powers by not opening the legislature after an election, shutting it down arbitrarily for months, and calling snap elections in violation of fixed-election-date laws. The Governor General allowed Prime Minister Harper to call a snap election in 2008 in violation of the (too vague) fixed-election-date law, to prorogue Parliament in a very questionable minority government situation, and to declare many votes in Parliament as confidence votes even though they were clearly not confidence votes.

“There are no legal or other justifiable reasons for Canada’s political party leaders to fail to approve at least eight key rules for Parliament,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “It is clearly in the public interest that the rules be approved to stop unfair abuses of power by the ruling party that violate the rights of the legislature and the democratic will of the majority of voters.”

After the eight rules are enacted into law, Parliament should, as the legislatures in England, Australia and New Zealand have, examine and enact other fairness rules to ensure the legislature and MLAs can hold the government accountable. The rules should cover the following key areas: what can be included in omnibus bills; the freedom and powers of individual politicians to vote how they want on resolutions and bills; how members of legislature committees are chosen, and; what a Cabinet can do during an election campaign period until the next Cabinet is chosen.

“As long as the rules for Parliament are unwritten and unclear, the Prime Minister and ruling party will be able to abuse their powers and Parliament’s ability to hold the government accountable will be undemocratically restricted,” said Conacher.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
info@democracywatch.ca

Democracy Watch’s Democracy Watch’s Democratic Head Campaign and Stop PM/Premier Abuses Campaign


Background

8 Key Rules for a Fair and Democratic Parliament

  1. Until the Governor General has communicated directly with all the party leaders, the Governor General will not make a decision about which party or parties (through either a formal coalition or legislative agreement) will be given the opportunity to govern first (i.e. to appoint a Cabinet and introduce a Speech from the Throne in Parliament);
  2. The party that wins the most seats in the election will be given the first opportunity to govern, including in partnership or coalition with another party, unless the leaders of other parties representing a majority of members of the legislature indicate clearly to the Governor General that they will not support that party and that they have agreed to form a coalition government or have agreed on a common legislative agenda;
  3. Within 30 days after the Governor General decides which party or parties will be given the first opportunity to govern, the Governor General and the governing party/parties will open the legislature with a Speech from the Throne;
  4. Even if the leaders of parties that represent a majority of members of the legislature do not indicate lack of support for the party that wins the most seats before that party’s Speech from the Throne, if they subsequently indicate lack of support for the Speech, the Lieutenant Governor will not allow the Prime Minister-designate to prorogue the legislature before the Speech from the Throne is voted on by members of Parliament;
  5. If a majority of members in Parliament vote against the Speech from the Throne, the Governor General will give the opposition parties an opportunity to govern (through either a formal coalition or legislative agreement) before calling an election;
  6. After the vote on the Speech from the Throne, the only vote in Parliament that shall be a vote of non-confidence is a vote on a motion that states: “The legislature does not have confidence in the government.”
  7. If opposition parties introduce a motion of non-confidence in the governing party at any time after election day, the Governor General will not allow the Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament before the motion is voted on by Parliament, and;
  8. If a majority in Parliament votes to approve a motion of non-confidence in the governing party before the next fixed-election date, the Governor General will give the opposition parties an opportunity to govern (through either a formal coalition or legislative agenda agreement) before agreeing to any request by the Prime Minister that the Governor General call an election.

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