Skip to main content
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week for 24 weeks
Access every election story that matters
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Everyone has been dumping on Jagmeet Singh from a great height for his letter to the Governor-General, recommending she refuse the Prime Minister’s request, should it come, to dissolve Parliament and call an election.

Does he not know how our system of government works, a number of commentators wondered aloud? Others accused the NDP leader of grandstanding, preying upon public ignorance to score a political point. Because convention dictates the governor-general acts solely upon the advice of her first minister. Period. End of story.

Not so fast. The Governor-General may generally be bound to act as instructed, but in exceptional circumstances, constitutional scholars agree, she retains the discretion to act independently of the prime minister’s advice. The convention is particularly well-established with regard to requests for dissolution.

Story continues below advertisement

If, for example, a prime minister were to demand a new election mere months after the last, the governor-general would have the right to call upon someone else to form a government, if she were persuaded someone else could.

Governor-General will agree to a Trudeau request to call a snap election, expert says

More broadly, as the eminent political scientist Peter Russell has written, she has the right, and indeed the obligation, to reject the prime minister’s advice where necessary to “protect the parliamentary system of government.” If the PM were to give her advice that “seems seriously adverse to the functioning of parliamentary democracy,” according to Prof. Russell, “it should not be followed.”

The governor-general, in short, is bound by other conventions, too: notably, to uphold our system of government. And among the things that define that system is the rule of law – the notion that everyone is bound to act in accordance with the law, including the governments that pass them.

Hence Mr. Singh’s appeal to the Governor-General. At its core, it was rooted in the rule of law: Specifically, the law stipulating that federal elections must be held, not at a time convenient to the prime minister, but on a fixed timetable: “the third Monday of October in the fourth calendar year” after the last election.

Passed in 2007, the law has since become, in conventional wisdom, something of a joke – a bit of symbolism without real teeth. After all, didn’t the prime minister who brought it in, Stephen Harper, himself call a snap election the very next year? And wasn’t he permitted to do so by a provision of the same law, stipulating that nothing in it affects the powers of the governor-general, “including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor-General’s discretion”?

Well, maybe. The toothless reading of the law may be commonplace now, but that was not the understanding on which it was passed. Government ministers, from the prime minister down, were at pains to assure Parliament the law would be binding on them, and on all future governments.

The non-derogation clause was presented not as an open-ended exception that would empty the bill of all meaning, but as a bit of pro forma boilerplate to protect the bill from legal challenges – since governor-generals’ powers can only be changed by constitutional amendment.

Story continues below advertisement

The only occasion in which the governor-general would actually use the discretion to which the clause referred, ministers insisted, was in the event a government were defeated on a vote of no confidence. Well, there was one other potential occasion: If a prime minister were to try, notwithstanding the law, to call a snap election, it would be open to the governor-general to stop him.

How do I know all this? Because the minister responsible for the bill said so at the time. “A prime minister who called an election for no reason, after not having lost the confidence,” Rob Nicholson, government house leader and minister of democratic reform, told the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee on Dec. 6, 2006, “would be into a very difficult constitutional situation that would require perusal by the governor-general.”

Challenged further, he clarified: “If a prime minister, after three and a half years, for no reason understandable to the public, demanded a dissolution of Parliament by the governor-general, I believe that under this legislation the governor-general would be within his or her rights to deny that.” (Emphasis mine.)

The governor-general’s discretion might not have been circumscribed by the legislation, in other words, but the PM’s was – by the governor-general’s. The vice-regal discretion the law preserved was not only to call elections, where the law allowed them, but to refuse to call them, where it did not. “It is a true restriction of the powers of the prime minister,” Mr. Nicholson commented, “and a good one.”

Whatever combination of cynicism and laziness may have habituated us to the idea that the people who pass our laws are entitled to ignore them when they prove inconvenient, it is in fact a monstrous corruption – one that eats at the very foundations of our system of government.

A snap election may be within the letter of the law, but not the spirit. And is not the spirit of the law the very thing the governor-general is supposed to represent?

Story continues below advertisement

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies