In his influential treatise The English Constitution, Walter Bagehot wrote that it is the private right of the monarch "to be consulted, to encourage and to warn." Governor-General Michaëlle Jean apparently has a more expansive view of the powers she exercises as the Queen's representative. She seems to think they include the right to publicly scold the government. That, or she lacks the ability to recognize when she is wading into controversy, which is equally worrying.
Speaking Monday at a function marking the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (notably, a conference in which government ministers had opted not to participate), Ms. Jean declared that Canada was at "the crossroads" and spoke darkly about the need to "resist the temptation to deny our fellow citizens their most basic rights."
It was an unusual speech by any definition. What crossroads was she alluding to? Is Ms. Jean really suggesting that, a quarter-century after the Charter was adopted as part of the Constitution Act, 1982, the basic rights of Canadians are in even greater jeopardy than they were before the Charter's adoption? If so, what sinister forces are responsible?
Ms. Jean continued, declaring, "It is now more than ever that we must answer the cries of vulnerable groups seeking full access to justice." Her remarks came the same day that the NDP had renewed attacks on the government for its decision last year to withdraw funding for the Courts Challenges Program, a $5.6-million fund that had paid lawyers for non-profit groups to launch Charter challenges against the government. It came within 24 hours of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's announcement that, if elected, he would not only restore the program but double its budget to $11.2-million.
A spokeswoman for the Governor-General denied that Ms. Jean was referring to the program. Even if it was not her intention, she created that perception, leaving herself and her office open to allegations of partisanship.
Whether or not one agrees with the Conservative government's decision to withdraw funding from the Court Challenges Program, it is a decision that the government has the right to make without getting sideswiped by the viceroy. IfMs. Jean has any concerns about government policy, she should register themwith the Prime Minister in the time-honoured fashion of Westminster-style government -- in private, where such views belong.