Once a Prestigious Post, Now a Refuge for Partisans

If there's any one person in Canada entitled to be outraged by the choice of Michaelle Jean as the new governor-general--and there are many--it is surely Adrienne Clarkson.

Like Clarkson or dislike her, there's no disputing that she was a large figure in Canadian life for more than three decades when Jean Chretien named her. That she was also the first non-white and first immigrant governor-general was a wonderful extra.

But the selection of Michaelle Jean casts a brutal retrospective light on Clarkson's elevation. Whoever picked the new G-G gave one order: "Find me a non-white francophone woman!"--and so you have to wonder whether they did not similarly regard the accomplished Clarkson as nothing more than a non-white anglophone woman. The only pleasure we can take in the Michaelle Jean selection is to watch Canada's exquisitely correct reporters tripping over themselves to avoid reporting the most super-abundantly obvious truth.

In fairness to Ms. Jean, it should be said that she is not the most appalling governor-general ever appointed. That distinction still belongs to Romeo LeBlanc, the Chretien crony whose principal prior public achievement was to have set a record as the longest-serving minister of fisheries in Canadian history.

Yet if the Jean choice is not quite as disdainful of the decencies as the LeBlanc selection, it may in its own way bode even worse for the future of Canada.

Cast your eye down the roll of the past governors-general of the country. What you see there is a long list of people who for one reason or another stood independent of the government of the moment.

First there are the great British lords: the earls, dukes, and royal cousins of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Then come the self-made men of earned prestige: the British writer and explorer John Buchan; the Second World War field marshall Viscount Alexander; the Canadian war hero Georges Vanier.

Then, under Pierre Trudeau, comes a shift: to a series of superannuated politicians, each of them less impressive--and more desperately in need of a job--than the one before, finally hitting bottom with the LeBlanc appointment.

But now the Canadian government is exploring a new low: a governor-general of zero independent position or prestige, wholly beholden to the prime minister who bestowed this lavish patronage plum on him or her.

Most of the work of a governor-general is ceremonial. But the office does retain vague but very real powers to umpire the political game and uphold constitutional rules. And so, just as a precaution, prime ministers have step by step degraded the office, always with an eye to eliminating any possible brake on their own power. What better way to degrade the office than to choose successively more negligible people to fill it?

From Vincent Massey to Jules Leger, Canada's governors-general epitomized the ideal of nonpartisan, non-ideological public service. That ideal is dead, dead, dead. Michaelle Jean's record of service to Canada may be short, but her identification with the leftward side of the ideological spectrum is strong. To choose her as the nation's de facto head of state is to announce that conservatives and westerners do not deserve to be represented, do not really count as Canadians.

It is a strange thing about the Liberal Party. They constantly insist they are the party of patriotism and the party of national unity. Yet over four decades, they have systematically destroyed one Canadian institution after another, severing the connections between Canadians and their past. Their treatment of the governor-general is all too typical: They have stripped away the office's authority, its purpose, and now its reputation for impartiality. Is there another country where the de facto head of state comes to office on such humiliating and useless terms?

The Liberals of course yearn to do away with the monarchy altogether and elevate the governor-general into the formal head of state. If they succeed, they will have eliminated the last vestigial restraint on the power of the chief executive--and broken the last visible link to Canada's origins. Step by step, they will have built a country without memory ruled by power without limit.

But mere preservation of the monarchy is not enough. So long as the Queen's representative is chosen by the prime minister at his sole discretion, it will be almost irresistibly tempting for him to regard the post as, at best, a fancy patronage plum and, at worst, a weapon of ideological and partisan war.

It's long past time to find another way. Invite Prince Edward over from England and give him the job for a 20-year term. Or create a college of electors made up of 50 distinguished people and let them vote in conclave. Or put every name in Who's Who in Canada into a drum and pick the G-G by lottery. Pure chance could not do worse than the Chretien/Martin Liberals--and would probably do a lot better.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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