Allison Cully/the Gauntlet

The power and the glory

The Governor General's precarious position as newly entrusted decision maker

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The weeks since the last Canadian federal election have been eventful, to say the least. While the world economy continues its freefall, the parties of Parliament have squabbled to the point where it is being argued that the governing Conservatives have lost the confidence of the House of Commons. What happens next remains to be seen, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has hinted he will ask Governor General Michaëlle Jean to dissolve Parliament and call yet another election, while a coalition consisting of Liberals and New Democrats and backed by the Bloc Quebecois have announced plans to ask Jean to allow them to form their own government.

The recent turn of events puts Jean in the hot seat and highlights one of the recurring problems in Canadian politics-- the role of the Governor General. Since its institution, there has been debate over the purpose of the office. Originally a representative of the Crown given power to reign in its stead in British North America, the position has continually been redefined through constitutional crises and political convention to the point where it is largely a figurehead. While many arguments have arisen regarding senators and judges being appointed decision-makers accountable to none, the Governor General's ceremoniality and lack of decisions to make have left the position full of pomp and circumstance, but little real power. Until now.

The importance of the position has diminished over time, in part due to acts of government and political convention, shifting the priority from Canadian governance towards more of an advisory role. The rebellions of 1837 prompted the introduction of responsible government and the Governor General's primary function became to ensure that those running Canada had the confidence of its populace. The controversial 1926 ordeal involving Governor General Lord Byng refusing Mackenzie King's request to dissolve Parliament resulted in British government acts recognizing the sovereignty of the colonies and a convention amongst subsequent Governor Generals to grant the Prime Minister's request in such situations. Byng's refusal to dissolve Parliament stands as the only such instance in Canadian history.

Nevertheless, mere convention cannot bind the hands of the Governor General. Jean has the power to call an election or hand the proposed coalition the reins of government. Since Confederation, Canadian voters have chosen a Prime Minister by an election, with the understanding being that if their party loses the confidence of the House of Commons, Parliament will be dissolved and an election called. The future of Canada's government is too important to be decided by officials bound by mere convention. If government falls, let it be the fault of politicians answerable to voters and not appointees accountable to no one.