The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada’s embarrassing governor general should resign — and no one should replace her

Canada's Governor General Julie Payette during a ceremony in Ottawa in November. (Blair Gable/Reuters)
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As the reputation of Canadian Governor General Julie Payette continues to collapse amid an expenses scandal and workplace outrage, many have taken to arguing she must quit to salvage the credibility of her office.

Payette should resign “for the good of the country, for the good of the position itself” said Global News’s Rob Breakenridge. “Given the seriousness of the allegations, the importance of Payette’s role and the constitutional complications, the right thing for her to do is to resign now,” concurs Kathryn Marshall in the National Post.

This scramble to ditch Payette often drifts into misty nostalgia about those who preceded her. Prior to Payette, Canada had been “blessed with some truly distinguished vice-regal representatives,” claimed the Toronto Sun. The Victoria Times Colonist dubbed past governors general “outstanding examples” who, unlike Payette, “brought dignity to the office.”

Yet as I noted back in 2018, when accusations that Payette was bad at her job were first beginning to fly, it’s difficult to argue with a straight face that any Canadian has ever known or cared about a governor general, given how little of note any of them have done. In 150 years of Canadian nationhood, it’s not hyperbole to say that no governor general has given a speech worth quoting, presided over a ceremony worth remembering or otherwise done anything impressive with the figurehead duties that comprise 99 percent of the position’s purpose. Increasingly, the highest compliment one can give a GG is that they “avoided controversy,” which some apparently believe is the most that should be expected. The best governors general are “just… there” says the National Post’s Chris Selley of a position taxpayers spend nearly $50 million a year on.

But what of the office’s vital political role, cry defenders when the topic of abolishment is raised — after all, the governor general is supposed to be a parliamentary “arbiter” who limits “the power of the prime minister and his government,” in the words of the Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark. Here, the office’s track record is just as thin as on the ceremonial front. A governor general controversially forced a prime minister to resign 94 years ago (which was undone by Parliament, and then voters, within days) and … that’s about it.

This is because despite much talk that governors general “exercise a degree of judgment” over the appointments of prime ministers and the timing of elections, in practice such judgments are dictated by a rigid flowchart of decision-making that requires scant personal discretion: In scenario A, do B; in scenario C, do D; and so on.

This underwhelming reality should make it easy to conceptualize a post-GG future for Canada, but a culture of sappy monarchism within the Ottawa establishment and lingering trauma toward proposals for constitutional reform have frozen the country in a sclerosis on this issue, which it seems incapable of shaking out of.

So allow me.

There exist many parliamentary democracies that function without an office holding even the theoretical powers of Canada’s governor general. In Sweden and Japan, for instance, it is parliament that appoints a government following an election or vote of no-confidence, and parliament that decides when it should be prorogued or dissolved. These are rational powers for a parliament to have and could easily become the norms of the Canadian system by adding a few short sentences to the constitution — “on its first sitting following an election, the House shall designate a prime minister,” etc.

It’s bizarre that in Canada this is somehow seen as more controversial than assigning discretion over such matters to a retired astronaut or TV host whom the prime minister (hardly a disinterested party) appoints and puppeteers. The position is a muddled anachronism, a colonial holdover from the age in which Canadian self-government could exist only with a governor’s permission, now retconned as a font of checks and balances that are never exercised precisely because the position is regarded as silly and illegitimate.

There is a smallness of mind and ambition that characterizes constitutional analysis in Canada, particularly the assumption that Canada has no right to establish traditions of government that exist outside the norms of the Commonwealth’s so-called Westminster System (a “system” that’s practiced in wildly different ways across the globe, in any case). Some are surely already fainting at the idea of a government that does not employ a full-time “head of state,” discrete from the prime minister, for public rituals at least, in the style of the monarchs of Europe, or the figurehead presidents of Germany or India — though those positions are subject to endless debate about their pointlessness as well.

A Canada with more self-confidence would have the courage to revisit its governor general entirely on its own terms. If the country is truly the beacon of principled democratic liberalism it so often claims, eliminating a failed, undemocratic office should hardly be painful.

Read more:

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J.J. McCullough: The WE Charity scandal and the arrogance of Canada’s progressive establishment

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