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Adrienne Clarkson was the 26th governor-general of Canada, 1999 to 2005.


It is distressing to hear ill-informed discussion that would seem to equate Canada's parliamentary system with the mysteries of the enthronement of the emperor of Japan, in which the new emperor enters into a pristine private chamber to unite with his ancestress, the Sun Goddess, in such a way as to share in a unique manner her divinity.

Since March 7, 1848, when Lord Elgin, Canada's governor-general, informed the House of Commons that he would be forming a new executive council headed by Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, the heart of this country's democracy has been lodged in the confidence of the House. We need to remember this in the case of there being no clear majority of seats for any one party in an election. There is no mystery in it; it is part of our Constitution and it is clear.

The heart of our democracy is responsible government and that means representative government. The constitutional convention is such that if the Official Opposition gains a majority, the existing government must resign. The democratic principle behind this is that the powers of the state must be exercised in accordance with the wishes of the electorate. The principle of responsible government is that the executive branch of government governs only with the support of the elected representatives of the House.

When no single party commands an absolute majority, the governor-general must try to appoint a person who can form a minority government or a coalition that can secure the confidence of the House. Any formal or informal alliances can come into play. If no one is found, the governor-general dissolves the House and an election is called. What is known as the "reserve power" of the governor-general is a certain discretion essential to responsible government to ensure that the prime minster has the confidence of the House and does not attempt to govern in absence of that confidence. Anything done to avoid gaining confidence of the House is a betrayal of the principles of responsible government.

We have become used to a pall of total silence falling on negotiations or discussions between the prime minister and the governor-general. There is, of course, the important rule of discretion in the meetings between the two, which are usually and properly held regularly and formally during a mandate in which discussions are in camera. But in important matters such as a decision to call upon a certain leader to form a government in the absence of a clear majority, what is known as the "practice of non-disclosure" is not one that we should continue to use.

Many constitutional scholars agree that the veil of secrecy should be lifted from crucial settings of democratic accountability. For example, in 2008 when the Prime Minister asked for prorogation, many felt the public had the right to know the Governor-General's reasons for granting the request and the Prime Minister's reasons for asking, particularly as there was a majority group prepared to govern, if asked. The practice of non-disclosure can undermine the public's perception and confidence in the functioning of democracy.

I believe that the "culture of justification" has emerged as a key constitutional value in Canada. Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century British constitutional writer, said the Crown – embodied by the governor-general – has "the right to be consulted … to encourage … to warn." To accept the policy of the practice of non-disclosure is to say that this can happen without the citizens having any knowledge about what transpired. And, to draw the demeaning conclusion that citizens have more confidence in what they don't know, and aren't told, than in what they could understand if they had the facts.

I believe that we are in a period of what some scholars call "evolutionary democracy" and that in our parliamentary system we must pay attention to the public's right to be informed. In 1998, Supreme Court Justice Beverley McLachlin stated that "societies governed by the rule of law are marked by a certain ethos of justification … an exercise of public power is only appropriate where it can be justified to citizens in terms of rationality and fairness."

It is important that this justification occur, because the public must be satisfied that there are not ulterior motives, that a decision is logical and based on valid reasons, and that it promotes transparency and accountability. A governor-general and a prime minister could explain their actions on TV, radio or social media and directly enlighten the public. This would help to gain public trust in our institutions in a democratic society, and it enables the governor-general to be a constitutional actor, not a constitutional object.

We have had Canadian governors-general representing the Crown since 1952, so the governor-general is one of us. Bagehot also said, "The mystery of the monarchy is its life … do not let in daylight upon magic." This perception of monarchy, with its quaint medieval aura of cloud-capped fairy tale castles, is difficult to accept in a country where Canadian governors-general are chosen by the government of the day. The Queen gives assent to the choice and from then on refers to the governor-general in her formal assignment as "beloved." As far as I have been able to learn, she has never disagreed with a name put forward by any of our prime ministers. We really should not expect magic in our governors-general, but hard-working committed individuals who have lived their lives as citizens before their appointment and will be taking the subway again when their term is over.

The political leader called upon by the governor-general to go into the House and command the confidence of it is at the very heart of what we believe to be our democracy. There should not be any unseemly delay in recalling the House, nor should there be prorogation for an election before the leader has met the House. The machinery of government must be able to continue and it must not be held up in our system by a failure to call the House together, elect a speaker, and give a Speech from the Throne.

Responsible government, where the cabinet gains and retains power through confidence, and where ministers are individually and collectively responsible for government decisions, is a tried-and-true system: The government is held continuously responsible for its actions between elections, and can lose its right at any time that a majority of elected people votes no-confidence in it. There is no more important task for the House of Commons than deciding which party or combination of parties has its confidence to govern.