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Michael Bliss, historian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.
Michael Bliss, historian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

Michael Bliss

We need elected referees Add to ...

Who should appoint the chief referee in Canadian politics?

If the first-seeded team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was allowed to choose the referee for its games, hockey would obviously and quickly lose its credibility. That's why referees are appointed by the league, an impartial body.

Yet in the game of Canadian politics, the party that forms the government is both allowed and required to recommend to the monarch the person who will be governor-general. We are gradually realizing that this situation is terribly flawed, and not easy to rectify.

It wasn't always such a problem. Once upon a time, the monarch could act more or less independently, functioning as the impartial body in appointing referees to the colonial league. Even after we insisted that Canada appoint its own governor-general, and even after we began making some egregiously partisan appointments (such as Ray Hnatyshyn and Roméo Leblanc), no one cared very much. In the normal to and fro of Canadian politics, somewhat like a game of shinny, governors-general have almost no refereeing to do. They are mostly a symbol, an adornment, mainly admired for their skating technique.

But the recent persistence of minority government, in the context of a very aggressive multiparty system, has changed the old game. As we saw with the coalition crisis of 2008, Parliament now requires much more careful and professional refereeing. Suddenly, the G-G is vitally important. Suddenly, we need one who is taken seriously and respected by all the players, lest the game turn into a shambles.

We have no idea who Stephen Harper will recommend as our next governor-general. There is grave danger that the appointee will be written off immediately as one team's choice. This would be very dangerous.

Our other referees, judges, are also appointed by government, and that system usually seems to work reasonably well. This is partly because our judges usually emerge from a serious, rigorous apprenticeship in officiating - referee school, as it were - and usually have informal certification from their peers. Unfortunately, there is no school to train governors-general, in fact no agreement on who is qualified for the office. Most Canadians, even politicians, still seem to think the ceremonial role is paramount. Thus we have the current range of proposed appointees who are celebrities or representatives of minority groups. But the person who gets the job has to be trusted to arbitrate hugely important constitutional issues affecting our political destiny.

It is to Mr. Harper's credit that he appears to be consulting carefully in the hope of getting non-partisan support for his choice. How very sad that Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff, displaying unbelievably bad judgment, is openly politicizing the selection process by advancing the reappointment of Michaëlle Jean as the Liberal Party's candidate. Constitutional experts are shaking their heads about this blunder, because they realize that opening the Pandora's box of partisanship further undermines the credibility of a vital but precarious office.

We have to hope that Mr. Harper finds ways to rise above the fray and appoint a new chief referee in whom we can all have confidence. It will be very difficult - Canada's decayed monarchical system is truly dangerously flawed.

The only way for a referee to wield the game-deciding power of this office is in the knowledge that he or she has the confidence of the Canadian people. When the impartial league is a meaningless shadow, and the teams cannot unite behind the referee, some higher power will ultimately have to do the job.

In a democracy, that highest power is the people. Some day, Canadians will realize that they should elect their governor-general.

Michael Bliss is a historian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

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