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Governor General supports writing down Canada’s unwritten constitutional conventions as Britain, Australia and New Zealand have

Media should ask Prince William if he thinks Britain writing down its conventions years ago clarified the role of the Crown in British politics

Unclear, unwritten conventions caused constitutional crisis in 2008 – another crisis can be prevented by clearly restricting Prime Minister (and premiers’) powers by writing Canada’s conventions into laws, as large majority wants

Canada should also Canadianize and democratize the selection process for the Governor General, to make Canada a more democratic, independent country

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

OTTAWA – Today, Democracy Watch highlighted that in an interview with the Hill Times, Governor General David Johnston supported writing down Canada’s unwritten constitutional conventions concerning key Parliament and election operations to make them more clear and enforceable. The unwritten conventions in Britain, Australia and New Zealand have all been written into laws or documents called “Cabinet manuals.”

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

Democracy Watch called on the media to ask Prince William whether he thinks that writing Britain’s constitutional conventions in laws and other public documents has been helpful in clarifying the role of the Crown in British politics and government.

Writing down Canada’s conventions will prevent abuses of power by the Prime Minister like calling a snap election, and the prorogation crisis, that happened in 2008.

Canada’s Governor General, the unelected and unaccountable representative of the Crown, has the very important powers to decide (among other things):

  • whether and when an election will be called (as the Federal Court of Appeal ruled in 2010 that Canada’s federal election dates are not actually fixed);
  • which party will be given the opportunity to try to govern first after an election;
  • when Parliament will open after an election and can be shut down, and;
  • whether MPs support the government or whether a vote of non-confidence has occurred.

However, none of the rules for these decisions are written down, and that allows the Prime Minister to advise the Governor General to do these things essentially whenever the Prime Minister wants.

In Britain, very specific rules (for example, a law that actually fixes election dates unless a clear vote of non-confidence occurs), and other written rules make it clear when and what the Prime Minister is allowed to advise the Queen to do, and whether the Queen should accept or reject the Prime Minister’s advice.

Australia and New Zealand also wrote down their conventions years ago to restrict abuses by their prime ministers, and so that their governors general know whether to accept or reject the advice from the prime minister. Most other countries that call themselves democracies also have these rules written into their constitution or other laws.

“The Governor General and federal party leaders can prevent future constitutional crises and abuses of power by the Prime Minister by agreeing on and passing laws that detail our currently unwritten conventions,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “The Lieutenant Governor and party leaders in every province should do the same to prevent future crises and abuses.”

Democracy Watch also proposes that the selection process for the Governor General be Canadianized and democratized, as more than two-thirds of Canadians want. This can be done without changing the Constitution. All the Prime Minister has to do is:

  1. establish an independent commission to conduct a merit-based search for qualified nominees;
  2. send the short list the commission develops to the leaders of all federal, provincial and territorial parties that are represented in the legislature and ask for their choice from the short list, and;
  3. then tell the Queen that Canada is appointing the person that most of the party leaders support.

Given that the Governor General chooses provincial lieutenant governors, leaders from all parties represented in the legislatures across Canada should be involved in choosing the Governor General. Along with writing Canada’s constitutional conventions into laws, implementing this simple, multi-partisan appointment process will make Canada a more democratic and independent country.

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

Democracy Watch’s Democratic Head Campaign