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Next Governor General should be chosen through democratic, multi-partisan, Canadianized process

GG is a key guardian of Canada’s democracy – must be fully independent and impartial, not handpicked in secret by PM

All federal parties should also agree on key rules of Parliament before next election to prevent abuse of power by PM

Friday, January 22, 2021

OTTAWA - Today, as part of its Democratic Head Campaign which is supported by thousands of Canadians, Democracy Watch called on Prime Minister Trudeau to democratize and Canadianize the choice of the next Governor General. Like all the other 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’s campaign proposes 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. 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 process. The Queen does have to approve the person formally, but if the Prime Minister does not request the approval, and the Queen agrees to whomever is nominated, 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.

Both of these changes to the Governor General’s appointment process can be made by the Prime Minister alone – no changes to any law, or Canada’s Constitution, are needed.

“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, especially in a minority government situation, 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 and Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.

“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,” said Conacher.

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 10 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 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 former Governor General also said in an August 2016 interview with the Hill Times that he thought these unwritten constitutional conventions should be written down.

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

Ideally, the rules should also 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 can be removed from and reinstated in political party caucuses through democratic votes of caucus members; how members of legislature committees are chosen by caucuses not by party leaders, and; what a Cabinet can do during an election campaign period until the next Cabinet is chosen.

In England, Australia and New Zealand, political party leaders and MPs agreed years ago to clear, public rules so what happens before, after and in-between elections is fair for all the parties, and for voters. Most countries in the world also have clear, public rules. Britain’s politicians and public also 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.

“Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s politicians and public know the rules for UK minority governments because its rules are written but Canadian politicians and public don’t because our rules are unwritten,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “If federal party leaders don’t agree to key written rules before the next election, constitutional crises could happen with politicians, lawyers and academics having ridiculous arguments about what our unwritten rules are, and the unelected, unaccountable Governor General forced to make decisions based on conflicting opinions about unwritten rules. Meanwhile, in Britain, Australia and New Zealand everyone is 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 Canada’s rules be written down to stop unfair abuses of power by the PM and Cabinet that will violate the rights of the legislature and the democratic will of the majority of voters right through the next election.”

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.

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Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
Email: [email protected]

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



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