Who's Afraid Of The Queen's Head Honcho?


The Vancouver Winter Olympics are over and the host country’s successes have overshadowed Canada’s second constitutional crisis in two years. The Canadian Parliament reopens for business on Wednesday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to suspend parliament was granted by Governor General Michaelle Jean in late 2009.

There’s been no comparable event in Australian federal politics since 1975 and arguably, except for matters of pomp and circumstance, Australia’s Governor General hasn’t much mattered since John Kerr threw out Gough Whitlam’s government in 1975. That story, however, is legend

As in Australia, the Governor General is the Queen’s representative in Canada, and serves as the de facto head of state in both countries.

While Australia’s government has started to describe the Governor General as the Head of State, the Queen herself would seem to take a different view. Australians who think that Kerr’s decision gives them ammunition against local monarchists must also account for the Queen’s apparent disappointment that she wasn’t consulted before Whitlam’s sacking.

Given the intense contempt still held for Kerr in some quarters, Australians might understand the contradictory responses of Canadians to the country’s constitutional crisis of 2008.

Despite a public declaration from the Coalition opposition that they no longer had confidence in the Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, the Governor General Michaelle Jean acted on the parliamentary record and granted Harper his request to suspend parliament in late 2008. 

While experts were almost unanimous that Jean had made the wrong decision, Canadians took it all very placidly. Coalition supporters who had rallied against suspending parliament and in favour of ousting Harper greeted her decision with disappointment — but not rage.

Jump forward to the end of 2009 and things were a little different. This time, Canadians braved the cold and gathered in crowded squares across the country to protest the "cynical power-grab".

Digging to the roots of such contradictory responses yields some difficult questions for monarchists and republicans in both countries.

While 54.87 per cent of Australians voted against the republican model put forward in the 1999 referendum, Canadian polls put support for the monarchy somewhere between 30 per cent and 70 per cent — that is, nowhere. Besides being consistently viewed as anachronistic in Quebec, Canadians facing the difficulty of any constitutional change simply don’t prioritise amending the role of the monarchy.

Nonetheless, Canadians share with Australians an intense discomfort with the idea of the Governor General exercising powers of any real political significance. Politically important decisions, after all, are supposed to be made in a democracy by the people’s representatives and not by an appointed representative of a hereditary monarch.

Friends and opponents of the monarchy both focus on the symbolic role of the Governor General, but doing so can obscure the irreplaceable practical function of the Governor General in the Westminster system. The executives of both Australia and Canada are chosen by the Governor General, if directly through an election, though of course, that decision is meant to be based on the will of the parliament.

Like any democratic model, the parliamentary system is imperfect. Constitutional rules cannot be written to avoid all conflict between governments and oppositions, executives and legislatures, Houses and Senates. Elections provide a release valve; yet Whitlam’s dismissal followed just such an election. Government sometimes requires a neutral umpire who is able to exercise discretion. Between partisan actors, everyone labours under the expectation that the Governor General will exercise her discretion in good faith according to the democratic principle and spirit of the constitution.

The foundation of the Governor General’s formal power in the monarchy, however, means this role is constantly shrinking. Ultimately, a person whose discretion is essential in times of crisis becomes powerless, a cipher at the service of the prime minister’s whim. The absurdity of a neutral arbitration between two parties being made at the behest of one was made clear when Prime Minster Harper visited the Governor General’s residence, Rideau Hall, in 2008.

Canada’s recent parliamentary suspension (or "prorogation") is constitutional, certainly. And prorogation is rightfully in the discretion of the executive, within limits, because it might sometime be required. Yet where prorogation is used tactically for partisan gain, scholars — and for a time, the majority of Canadians — felt that this was exactly the kind of request that a Governor General should have the discretion to deny. Though most agree that this most recent parliamentary break wouldn’t warrant interference, Canadians are up in arms precisely because the Governor General is powerless.

Republicans may seize on that powerlessness to support the idea of an elected head of state.

Mightn’t a Governor General, unweighted by the albatross of hereditary privilege, have the legitimacy to act judiciously against a government abusing its prerogatives? Canada’s experience demonstrates the solution may not be so simple.

The functional problem isn’t the role of the monarchy, it’s the disappearance of political neutrality itself. Half of Canada’s problem isn’t the Governor General’s role as the Queen’s representative, it’s the political reality of her appointment by partisan players. The Governor General herself has become one more partisan punching bag.

Indeed, because she’s a political appointee, the Governor General is seen by many to have less cachet than the Queen herself. The decision to move away from seasoned statesmen toward national symbolism — Canada’s current Governor General and her predecessor are both first generation immigrants and broadcasters without clear political commitments — seems to have made the problem worse, not better.

The risk with an elected head of state is that they will also be seen as beholden to temporary, parochial interests of their party, weighing down their ability to promote democratic principles and to ensure the rule of law.

There is something peculiar about Westminster countries in that one person is asked to simultaneously stand as political umpire while representing to the world their country, its population, and the nation itself. Given the lack of momentum in Australia to change important — but ultimately cosmetic — aspects of this bind, it seems unlikely this historical idiosyncrasy will be resolved anytime soon. 

Whether or not Australians and Canadians believe that their head of state’s symbolic value mandates a republic, equal attention should be given to that head of state’s ability to exercise prudent discretion when the rule of law provides no clarity and to dictate judicious resolutions when democratic principles are in conflict. Saying farewell to the monarchy may do that, but it might not.

Ultimately, the exercise of prudent discretion is as much a question of who the public chooses to trust, as of who signs the appointment papers.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.