Disciplining and Dismissing Governors General

What can be done with a Governor General who has been accused of acting inappropriately, but not unconstitutionally? As with most things Crown, it’s complicated. To understand why, we need to look how the Governor General relates to the Queen and the Prime Minister.

The Governor General is the Queen’s representative and is appointed (and if necessary dismissed) by the Sovereign on the advice of the Prime Minister. In almost all cases, the Queen is unlikely to raise objections about the person selected. The Queen and Buckingham Palace will assume that the Canada’s Prime Minister has selected a Canadian of proper standing and honour, and that the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office have performed due diligence regarding the individual’s suitability for the role and what it entails.

This being the Crown, there are of course exceptions. The Queen might refuse to appoint a new vice-regal representative if the Prime Minister is trying to replace the Governor General for dubious reasons. For example, the Sovereign would have the discretion to keep her vice-regal representative in place if the Prime Minister had lost the confidence of the House and the Governor General was refusing to dissolve Parliament in lieu of allowing someone else to form government. Likewise, the Queen would have the right to refuse if the Governor General was preparing to dismiss a Prime Minister who is engaging in criminality or who is acting unconstitutionally. In these instances, the Queen would be preventing the Prime Minister from interfering with the Crown’s place and powers in the Canadian constitution.

Aside from these extreme cases, though, the Queen would normally dismiss and replace the Governor General on the Prime Minister’s advice. The Queen retains this power to ensure that we have a mechanism to deal with Governors General who are unfit for office or who have misused their powers.

But does this mean that advising the Queen to dismiss a Governor General is the obvious solution when faced with a Governor General who is accused of wrongdoings? Not exactly.

Unless the Governor General has gone rogue or is acting in a flagrantly unconstitutional or criminal manner, the preferred course of action is for the Prime Minister and/or the Clerk of the Privy Council to work with the Governor General and Rideau Hall to remedy whatever the problem has arisen. If the issue can’t be readily resolved, or if it keeps recurring, the Prime Minister might request that the Governor General resign voluntarily. A conversation behind closed doors that allows everyone to save face, and to preserve the dignity of their respective offices, is the way to go.  

This would surely be Buckingham Palace’s preference as well: far better to keep the Queen out of it, if at all possible (though the Queen’s Private Secretary might also recommend that the Governor General resign, for the sake of the Crown’s wider reputation.)

So just to be clear: Advising the Queen to dismiss the Governor General should be the last option, when all others have been exhausted or time is of the essence.

Of course, having the Prime Minister visibly leaning on the Governor General to do better or resign would be awkward and expose constitutional fault lines we tend to ignore.

Formally, as the Queen’s representative, the Governor General holds the second highest office of the Canadian state. The Governor General is entrusted with reserve powers that are meant to ensure that vital aspects of the Canadian constitution, notably those surrounding the life of Parliaments and ministries, are respected. As discussed, this means that the Governor General may have to refuse a Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament, and the Governor General may be required to dismiss a Prime Minister who is violating the constitution or who is otherwise unfit to be first minister. When we think of who has the power to dismiss who, we usually think of it in terms of the Governor General’s authority over the Prime Minister. And, frankly, when our system is operating normally, that’s the way it should be. 

When it’s the Governor General’s conduct that’s at issue, however, the responsibility to act belongs with the Prime Minister. When Canada was a colony, this duty to act would have rested with the British government, since the Governor General was effectively their agent. Today, the Prime Minister’s responsibility stems from the fact that, under the conventions of responsible government, Prime Ministers advise the Queen on the appointment and dismissal of Governors General, and Prime Ministers are responsible for, and accountable for, all acts and affairs of the Canadian Crown, i.e. the Queen when she is acting in her Canadian capacity and the Governor General.

The Governor General, moreover, can’t be dragged in front of a parliamentary committee to account for their actions, nor would it be appropriate to even invite them. Governors General are supposed to be above the partisan fray and exposing them to opposition questions and critiques, or governing party deflections, would be contrary to constitutional propriety and the dignity of the office.

When the Prime Minister has to answer for the Governor General’s behaviour, though, it should be seen as a warning sign. If the issue goes away in short order, then the situation might be righted. But if the problem becomes a controversy or scandal, things will quickly become untenable. The Governor General’s authority over the Prime Minister will unravel if the first minister is having to reprimand the vice-regal representative. Conversely, the power and legitimacy of the Governor General will take a significant hit if the vice-regal representative is seen to be acting with impunity. Indeed, the standing of the office and institution could take significant damage if a Governor General appeared dismissive or unaccountable. A Prime Minister who couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything would also be abdicating their constitutional responsibilities.  

If questions about a Governor General’s suitability for office mount and persist, the matter should be dealt with discreetly, but decisively. If that doesn’t work, it may be necessary to address the issue more openly, to expose the goings on to public scrutiny and pressure. And if that still doesn’t solve the problem, then the Prime Minister should intimate that they’ll call the Queen, and ultimately call her and request a dismissal of the Governor General if there’s no other option.  

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