04 May 2010

On Selecting a GG

Dear Editor,

This past Sunday, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff raised an extremely important issue; one which was lost in translation as media focused on his offered solution, not the perceived problem. That problem is this: Should the Governor General, as a political appointment, be determined solely by the Prime Minister or should all parties be involved? Should average Canadians have a say? Those questions were buried as Iggy proffered the solution of extending MichaĆ«lle Jean’s tenure.

But those questions bear further examination. We tend to think of the GG as a figurehead, a tour guide for foreign visitors, sort of a site interpreter for the country. In truth, the Governor General is so much more. The GG is the Head of State and Queen’s Representative, although the former far outweighs the latter. The GG is also Commander in Chief of the Canadian Forces. And while it is important that the Governor General glad-hand dignitaries to improve international relations and, should the need arise, become a rallying point for the military, Her Excellency serves a more important role. The Governor General is responsible for ensuring that the Government adheres to Parliamentary procedure. In other words, the GG is supposed to make sure that our elected representatives do not play fast and loose with the rules. The Governor General acts for us, the citizens of Canada.

The mere existence and authority of this position helps keep government in line, but don’t think it a toothless position. In 1925 during the King-Byng affair, Governor General Lord Byng Vimy refused to dissolve King’s minority parliament in favour of giving the near-equal opposition a chance. Byng also refused King’s instruction to contact Britain for advice, thereby ensuring all future GGs would be free to act as they saw fit. Byng was later quoted as saying, “Right or wrong, I have acted in the interests of Canada.”

Which is exactly what a GG should do and what, perhaps, Michelle Jean could have done better over the prorogation issue. This is also specifically why the GG should not be appointed solely by the sitting government. The Governor General must look to their duty to Canada and not feel beholden to a Prime Minister for appointment or shared political views. The Governor General must be above party politics and be willing to do the unpopular if it is right for the country.

These facts make choosing a Governor General complicated. Obviously, politicians, sitting or retired, are disqualified as the skills which make a successful politician are unlikely to produce someone who can be both conciliatory when dealing with difficult dignitaries and yet be staunch with our government when required. Former legal professionals may be well qualified to represent the people, but would they serve well as a head of state? Shouldn’t the GG be someone known and respected by the public?

Looking at some of the current top contenders and suggestions, we can rule out many. Former soldiers, even top generals, are too authoritarian to be head of state, especially when called upon to play host to former enemies. The exception to this may just be General Romeo Dallaire, but I think most Canadians would agree that he has far more important work to do as a Senator and with the UN, fighting genocide and the use of child soldiers. Rick Hansen, seemingly the top contender, is certainly high profile through his charity work, but would he be willing and able to impose the people’s will on parliament? Does he have more than average knowledge of parliamentary procedure? Or is the choice of Rick based on the concept of a figurehead of state? Would such a move not further erode parliamentary process? Then we have the sports figures and celebrities. Being an athlete, coach, or commentator really does not qualify one to be the chief parliamentarian, nor does representing Canada in global athletic competitions generate the skills needed to be an ambassador. And, despite the feelings of some, playing captain of a starship does not give you any military or diplomatic skill.

Which narrows the field greatly. What we need is someone who is well known and well respected by the public. Someone who has experience interacting with foreign dignitaries. Someone who is knowledgeable about politics without being involved in such. Someone who has demonstrated that, despite her own political views, she is quite capable of treating all politicians equally.

To me, there is only one person who fits this list: Mary Walsh.

Obviously Mary is well known and well respected. Her high-profile career on This Hour Has 22 Minutes has shown her to have a national and international perspective on Canada. She does not suffer from the tunnel-vision of regionalism. In her various guises as pseudo-media, Ms. Walsh has be in close contact with important visitors to Canada and has comported herself as their equal. In domestic affairs, no party nor leader nor high-profile MP could or can consider themselves free from her criticism. This work has, of necessity, required Mary to learn much about the rules of parliament. As an activist for a variety of causes, Ms. Walsh is skilled in representing groups and working with politicians. As for representing the will of the people, Mary’s late public appearances and career-long commentary has proven she can and will speak on our behalf.

Kindest Regards,
Jeff Rose-Martland
Creator of the Mary Walsh for Governor General of Canada facebook group

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