This past Oct. 1 will be remembered in the Canadian history books as any swearing in of a governor general ought to be — the day we got a new one, the Right Honourable David Johnston. If, however, he delivers in the way many are hoping he will, it might as well be remembered as the day the Canadian vice-regal office got its groove back. And it’s about time.
Over the second half of the 20th century, the role of governor general inched towards being a completely ceremonial one, often given to former politicians and seen as a patronage position. This was partly a result of the country’s lack of need for the office’s muscle. For the most part, we enjoyed the stability of constant majority government. We were also blessed with a brood of politicians that were perhaps more sensitive to constitutional matters than they sometimes were to the national mood.
That situation has changed. We are in a period of parliamentary unrest unseen in a generation. There have been two constitutional crises in the past three years. Our politicians are more partisan than ever. We have a prime minister who is increasingly presidentializing his office.
Given this current climate, I can scarcely think of a better candidate than Johnston. Like his two most recent predecessors, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, he is mostly free of political baggage, having spent his life as a law professor and university administrator — he’s even moderated a couple of leaders’ debates over the years. Where he differs, though, is the personal authority he brings to the constitutional aspects of the role.
So why is this important? Well, the short answer to that is that at this juncture in history, we don’t have a choice; the Governor General’s role is enshrined in the conventions that help govern our country.
But that would be an oversimplification, and for better justification we need not turn any farther than the term of our last vicereine.
Michaëlle Jean, in my estimation, got off to a great start. She possessed an understated grace that contrasted well with Clarkson’s more sensationalized approach, and in some respects mirrored the benevolent detachment that our monarch, Elizabeth II, has perfected over half a century. Jean seemed able to stay above the fray without ever looking down upon it and, at the outset, this seemed to be exactly what we wanted in a governor general.
Unfortunately, she would be called upon to exercise viceregal powers in unprecedented ways, and didn’t measure up to the test. Two years in a row, Prime Minister Stephen Harper put forth a request to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament. Although it was the Conservatives’ moronic intransigence which directly led to the so-called “coalition crisis,” the December 2008 prorogation was probably justified, coming just four months after a federal election, and concerning a partisan matter of who was to govern.
The second time, however, just 12 months later, was an absolutely ridiculous affair. Firstly, Harper’s paper-thin justification was that he needed to “consult” with Canadians about the economy. Secondly, he demonstrated a complete disregard for protocol by making the request to Jean over the phone, instead of in person. Thirdly, he sought to suspend the legislature for an outrageous period of time — over two months — citing the Vancouver Olympics as an insurmountable distraction, which precluded the resumption of government until the beginning of March.
It was as blatant an act of political gamesmanship as I can recall. The Tories, bogged down in a scandal over Afghan detainees, essentially needed a chance to regroup, and Jean, to our detriment, granted it.
This was where she lost the confidence of many Canadians, myself included. It was becoming abundantly clear that no matter how ceremonial the role might seem, the primary criterion for a Governor General should not be a candidate’s bearing, but the authority with which they might dispense their constitutional duties.
Enter David Johnston. In spite of some media claims, he is not a constitutional expert, and has said so himself. Nevertheless, his academic and professional background, combined with the number of committees and inquiries that he has chaired over the years regarding every subject under the sun, have not only prepared him better to take action in government disputes, but also importantly, have given him the appearance of having been better prepared. Politicians, and perhaps the general public, will be far more at ease taking direction from a person of his stature, as opposed to a former broadcaster.
Now, we cannot know how Johnston will exercise his powers until he is required to, and in any case such situations rely so heavily on their circumstances that trying to make predictions is a fool’s errand. Nevertheless, I actually find a part of myself hoping that a constitutional crisis rears its head in the coming years, because my gut tells me that Johnston has what it takes to make the right decision, whatever that may turn out to be.
Most importantly, if he does live up to expectations, he will legitimize an important post that has largely lost its credibility in the public eye. Johnston has the opportunity to prove this notion true, and at the same time, if we’re lucky, help keep Canadian politics from being once again dragged into the gutter of procedural manipulations and partisan horseplay.
Greg Sacks is a first year law student at Robson Hall who believes the Internet will destroy society and is an avid user of the Internet.