The office of Governor General has attracted a fair bit of attention recently –at least as compared with how often it’s usually discussed. In the past few months, we’ve heard that Rideau Hall is undertaking a review the Governor General’s non-official commitments, seen the government withdraw support for a former Governor General seeking to renew her appointment as head of the Francophonie, and had controversy over the expenses of a retired vice-regal representative. To my mind, these stories highlight a couple of the sticky issues that surround the office, including the expectations placed on Governors General, what comes after a governor generalship, and the public funds available to former vice-regals. In particular, these stories highlight ambiguity about the patronage work performed by Governors General.
What do we expect Governors General to do? In answering this question, it strikes me that the constitutional and head of state functions of the office are paramount. Here we’re talking about the dissolution of Parliament, appointing and possibly dismissing the prime minister, giving the throne speech, swearing in Cabinet, signing orders-in-council, and so forth. The honours function is also important, since we want to keep politicians away from it to the extent that we can. So, the Governor General should bestow the Order of Canada, Order of Military Merit, and other honours.
What about the head of nation role? As with honours, we want to Governor General to represent Canadians to themselves, rather than having a partisan politician. Similarly, as Commander-in-Chief we want the Governor General honouring the military and being the symbol of the armed forces’ loyalty to the state as the Queen’s representative. Accordingly, the Governor General should be present at commemorations, major military celebrations and events, and other occasions when we require a non-partisan personification of Canada.
Governments occasionally send Governors General on state visits overseas. The purpose of these trip is soft diplomacy and relationship building. Although it’s hard to measure, I suspect that these visits bear fruit, either by building networks for the Canadian businesspeople and academics who travel with the Governor General, or by demonstrating Canada’s interest in building ties with the countries that are on the itinerary.
What about patronage? To my mind, there’s more flexible here. Some Governors General will want to commit themselves to numerous charitable events and maintain ties with all sorts of organizations. Others will be less inclined, and that’s okay. Not every Governor General will be as enthusiastic about this part of the job and we might turn away good appointees if we insist on it, or at least if we insist that every Governor General approach this aspect of the role with the same gusto. If there are opportunity costs between the Governor General’s constitutional, honours, head of nation, international duties and these patronage roles, I’d give far greater weight to the first four.
When Governors General leave office, their role in Canadian society becomes murkier. There’s a program in place to help former Governors General establish an organization that spearheads a cause of their choosing. This program gives former Governors General a chance to use their profile and statute for the public good. Former Governors General can also choose to find some other high-profile office or role. Governors General who leave office at a relatively young age may be especially drawn to these new opportunities. As we saw with Michaelle Jean’s efforts to remain at the head of the Francophonie, though, this is a tricky path for former Governors General, since there are few positions out there that properly balance the prestigious, but largely ceremonial, role of the Queen’s representative in Canada.
Indeed, this is one reason that the office of Governor General is better suited to older appointees who are nearing or are at the age of retirement. They can retire quietly if they so choose, rather than crafting a second, third, or fourth career after holding the second highest office of the Canadian state. At the very least, younger appointees should have a clear answer to the question: “so what do you do after being GG?”
Aside from the personal organization they found, or any other office they hold, however, most of the public activities of former Governors General fall squarely in the patronage category. While they may have some involvement with the government as Privy Councillors, or hold honourary positions with the military, retired vice-regals will have little involvement with their previous constitutional, honours, head of nation, or international functions. As a result, the patronage duties that are arguably the least essential to the vice-regal role become the primary ‘official’ function of former Governors General.
Controversy surrounding the publicly funded expenses of former Governors General, in turn, are tied to ambiguity that surrounds the patronage function. Most critics have rightly pointed out that the lack of transparency surrounding the expenses of retired Governors General is problematic and will have to change. I’m fairly certain that these expense accounts will soon be reported in detail. Once they are, though, questions will be raised about how much former Governors General should be able to charge for patronage work after they’ve left office. Both Adrienne Clarkson and her critics, for instance, have made this to focus of their responses to the recent controversy. Clarkson points out that she is invited to give hundreds of speeches, sit on boards, write forwards to books, etc., and therefore requires staff and resources to fulfil her continuing public service. Christie Blatchford thinks that just part of being a public figure and “In fact, this is life, period.”
From my perspective, deciding who’s right about these expenses, or how much retired vice-regals should be allowed to charge, will require a discussion about the importance we place on the Governor General’s patronage function overall. If we expect Governors General to be fully engaged with patronage work and to make it a central part of their role, then we should probably be willing to help them do that kind of work after they leave office. If, on the other hand, we think that patronage should be a smaller part of the Governor General’s workload and that they should focus on their primary duties above all, then there’s a strong case for limiting their official expenses in retirement to a narrow set of activities that pertain to their former head of state functions.
In that sense, I’d argue that this summer’s controversy about the Governor General’s schedule, and this fall’s controversy about the expenses of former Governors General, touch on the lack of clarity around patronage duties that developed over time and that are difficult to attach to the essential role of the vice-regal representative.