David Johnston, international man of almost no intrigue - Macleans.ca

David Johnston, international man of almost no intrigue

Paul Wells on the Governor General’s autonomy—or lack thereof


Patrick Doyle/CP

News that the Governor General will meet with aboriginal leaders (or at least with those aboriginal leaders who are pleased to show up) after Friday’s meeting with the PM (if it happens) at Rideau Hall (unless the venue changes) offers us our umpteenth opportunity to consider the autonomy of governors general and lieutenant governors.

They have none.

OK, for the sticklers in the audience, I’m willing to amend that to: they have limitless autonomy which they essentially never exercise. Which is the same as having no autonomy.

The PMO sent out word today that David Johnston will have a “ceremonial” meeting with First Nations leaders, at Stephen Harper’s request. Then Rideau Hall sent out a communiqué saying the same thing. I would be surprised if the timing of the two communiqués was not co-ordinated, so the PM’s staff speaks before the GG’s. This is as it should be, and as it has been since Lord Elgin signed the Rebellion Losses Bill.

One of the enduring modern bits of Ottawa lunacy has been the persistent belief that governors general will do something besides what the prime minister asks them to do.

After the 1995 referendum, Preston Manning wrote to Romeo LeBlanc asking him to fire Jean Chrétien. It didn’t work. Manning was good enough to admit later it had been a silly idea.

Much later, when the press gallery grew weary of Chrétien, it became popular to speculate that Adrienne Clarkson might take the prime ministership away from him and give it to Paul Martin. That didn’t happen. When the Liberal party rose up against Chrétien, Clarkson kept following his advice until, much later and after his party had held a convention to select his successor, he visited her to resign.

When Harper called an election ahead of his own fixed election-date law, Colleague Coyne invited Michaëlle Jean to refuse dissolution. She declined. When the Liberals and NDP formed a Bloc-backed coalition to replace Harper, he asked the GG to prorogue Parliament. Coyne invited her to refuse. Instead she followed her PM’s advice. When he sought prorogation a year later he got it. When Dalton McGuinty sought it late last year, the lieutenant governor there granted it.

It is possible to concoct an exquisitely narrow set of circumstances in which a governor general might arbitrate between two options. Essentially the circumstances would amount to manifest chaos beyond anything any of us has ever seen. Short of that, every day of the year the GG will do what the PM asks. This is how Canada can be both a monarchy and a democracy. It’s grade-school stuff. But Ottawa is full of people who think it is sophisticated to expect what has not happened in the lifetime of any of us.


David Johnston, international man of almost no intrigue

  1. Everything you say is true.

    But moving forward with Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples is important. So if they demanded Harper show up with Rick Mercer, 200 submarine sandwiches, and season 3 of Lost on bluray, I’d hope he’d sigh/curse quietly to himself and get started on making it happen.

    • The difference is that none of Mercer, subs, or DVDs has any theoretical political power. This is why you don’t want the GG to show up at a political meeting: what if he says something that contradicts his prime minister?

    • Do you think is a smart move to give to their demands and why?!

  2. I’m expecting to see this one out on the campaign trail in the next election.

    • ?!?!

      • One refers to GG and the message in the post.

  3. Hypothetical Question:
    When the PM asked for prorogation to avoid a confidence vote, would the GG say no if the vote had already happened?

    If so, in hindsight the best strategy for the opposition parties might have been to say nothing, fake like some of them were going to miss the vote to avoid defeating the government, then suddenly all show up…

    • That’s indeed one of a few different ways it could have been played. Another one: if the coalition was strong enough to govern for two years, it should have been strong enough to vote No Confidence in the Harper government on Jan. 28, 2009, after a five-week prorogation.

      • Yes.

      • Nothing succeeds like success. If placed in power there is nothing to say they couldn’t have done the job – since it never happened, it’s all just speculation. And since the worst thing that could have resulted would have been an election, I am not sure I am supportive of a GG making a decision based on her impression of the future performance of a government’s stability – it’s a very thin line between that and allowing a government based on perceived policy.

        • It’s like you didn’t even read Wells’ comment. What you said has no relation to his comment whatsoever.

    • The vote had already happened. Harper had just won a confidence vote on the Speech from the Throne. Some people seem to keep forgetting that.

      • That’s meaningless considering they announced as officially as possible they intended to withdraw that confidence ASAP. the main issue is the GG dissolved the house knowing non-confidence works were coming straight down the pipe, and knowing Harper couldn’t have controlled the house had he been asked to do so in a timely manner. It would not have been untoward to require him to hold a confidence vote before dissolving the house, and the GG very likely acted inappropriately, in the circumstances, by not doing so.

        All arguments to the contrary have been dealt with – including that the speech from the throne was voted on – in the past and will not be further entertained by me, in this space.

        • You’re saying the GG should make decisions based on what she thinks will be the outcome of a future vote (‘knowing non-confidence works were coming straight down the pipe’) and ignore the vote that just happened (referred to by whyshouldIsellyourwheat), based on the fact that you think you would have liked the results of the future vote but you did not like the results of the actual vote.

          There’s the first nonsense you said.

          You think the GG should make decisions based on what votes might come up in parliament and what might be the results (‘knowing non-confidence works were coming straight down the pipe’) as you say that a non-confidence vote was expected. But in a separate comment you said ‘I am not sure I am supportive of a GG making a decision based on her impression of the future performance of a government’s stability’.

          There’s the second nonsense you said. I mean, you’ve directly contradicted yourself there, one comment after the other. According to you, she should have noted an unstable Conservative minority but ignored an unstable coalition.

          So you think the GG should make decisions based on the future, but only if the future may be to your personal liking, and otherwise ignore the future.

          Yeah, that makes sense. Some people have said that Emily’s comment above is the dumbest of 2013. I would like to nominate the series of comments from you on this page.

          • Yeah, I know it is extremely difficult to out-dumb Emily on these pages but you may have a point with these series of GFMD contradicts.

            Actually if nominations are still open. I would like to put kcm in the running for dumbest comment for that little bit where he tried to weasel some space between what he thought was important but not appropriate.

  4. This conforms to your theory that, in politics, the least most exciting outcome is the one that prevails.

  5. Adrienne Clarkson was quite prepared to do her job….but then again she had the backbone and sense of responsibility for her job that Jean and Johnston do not.

    The power is there….so are two wimps.

    • Insightful.

      • She had a backbone alright. Her office “bullied” the Lieut. Govs. so she could have precedence when she was at provincial ceremonies AND on one occasion, she even tried to upstage the Queen at a D Day Celebration. Not to mention she spent a lot of money travelling around and snubbed Alberta Lieut. Gov Lois Hole’s Funeral.

      • LOL I’m glad you’re not as pissy as usual, but really….this one doesn’t take an essay/paper/dissertation etc. The job is simple and straightforward…and while difficult [the King/Byng/Spring/Thing] it’s doable.

        • Emily…why don’t you read your Wikipedia article on Adrienne Clarkson…all the way to the bottom. The biggest fear Chretien and then Martin had was that she would be called on to make some political call and then puffed up with her own sense of self-importance, she would break precedence and cause a constitutional crisis. The woman thought herself more important than the Queen. That is nothing to be proud of. The fact that Paul Wells is agreeing that she was a loose canon doesn’t mean he agrees that she was a great GG.

          • You may wish to gossip, I do not.

          • You mean you don’t want to be confronted with reality. I understand. It must be devastating to learn that so many of your heroes are so flawed. Yet, you continue to doggedly champion them. I appreciate your loyalty even if it is a bit misplaced.

          • No, I mean I have no wish to gossip, so go cluck somewhere else.

          • You don’t have enough time, you’re too busy reading and following claptrap instructions from HQ.

        • Emily, I know you don’t have time for gossip, you’re a busy man, but speaking of Mackenzie King; one fine spring day a few years ago I was over at Mount Pleasant Cemetery looking at the tree collection. As I was enjoying the spring growth and Nature’s ways a fellow came up with an enormous great Bull Dog on a leash.

          They worked their way deliberately, the two of them, to a lovely site on the north side near Merton Street where old Rover lifted one up and had a good squirt right there on the spot where Big Mac is having his dirt nap.

    • Congratulations, that’s the goofiest thing you’ve said yet. I’ve opened up a new category for it.

    • The stupidest comment of 2013 so far goes to you Emily, you won, happy now?!

      • Most of her comments are equally stupid.

    • Yep. She had the backbone to blow millions on an arctic cruise while fur shopping.

      The sad reality is the GG is a meaningless echo of royalty, giving the huddled masses who desperately need a better to tell them what to do – an office and visual better to tell them what to do.

      • I don’t intend to discuss stupid Con mantras about a former GG.

        Royalty itself is an outdated concept.

        However it’s the system we’re currently working under, so those are the rules we follow.

        • partisanship is for morons.

  6. “They have none.” …ahem, there was/is the Australian precedent mate.

    Seems sensible, but the devil is in the details. We will likely never know what MJ said to Harper in that [2hr?] meeting, what conditions she placed upon him getting his election, rather than turning to the opposition. I think you might want to dig a little deeper Mr W. No powers sure, but no influence, or advise that can be cavalierly dismissed – not so sure.

  7. There’s still a glaring difference between the first pro-rogue and all the others (although mcGuinty’s comes pretty darn close). The GG likely erred in her duty when not refusing to dissovle parliament in that instance, but acted appropriately in the others.

  8. People always want the GG to intervene when it’s in their favour, when it’s not in their favour he’s simply an unelected official representing the monarchy of another country. It’s best for all if he just does what he’s told and continues as a figure-head and a symbol of our close relationship with those fine folks on the other side of the Atlantic.

    • I very very seldom want the GG to intervene, and can think of only one instance where it should have happened.

      • My point exactly.

        • nope. your point was that people ALWAYS want the govt. to intervene. I only want it in very extreme circumstances, so rare only Harper has ever met them (with mcguinty coming close).

          • Twice in the last few years. Yeah, that’s truly extreme. Whenever you don’t like what happens. As Rick Omen said.

          • no.

        • Absolutely.

    • There’s a difference between the GG “intervening”, and his exercising judgment in his (very narrow) duties as referee of certain democratic traditions. Firing the PM after a referendum is, indeed, silly. But questioning a request to prorogue if the purpose is to keep in office a government without the support of parliament is not silly.

      I think that on balance, it was right to agree to both the Harper prorogation and the McGuinty one. However, these were both legitimate judgment calls with arguments on both sides. Not too long ago, PMs and premiers adhered to the notion that if there was any question of confidence, the government was obliged to test it in a vote forthwith. In the last decade, Martin, Harper and McGuinty have overturned that convention. Our democracy is diminished by it.

  9. “One of the enduring modern bits of Ottawa lunacy has been the persistent
    belief that governors general will do something besides what the prime
    minister asks them to do.”

    It’s like the trillion dollar coin idea in the USA. Some people will literally resort to any lunacy whatsoever, no matter how absurd, no matter how much damage it might do to precedent, no matter how much damage it might do to future generations, no matter how much damage it might do to parliament/congress, no matter what the consequences, to get what they want now.

    These people really don’t care what the ramifications are, if suddenly an unelected and appointed GG were to remove a sitting elected PM for the first time in history, or if suddenly the executive branch of government were to start issuing their own currency for the first time in history, subverting the federal reserve and the independence of the money supply, to circumvent the will of congress on debt and spending.

    When you say this to such crazy people, that their absurd ideas are crazy and dangerous, they will then go off on a crazy rant about how we will end up in a dictatorship of concentration camps unless we do what they say. They double down on their lunacy. It is disheartening.