Skip to main content

When Jagmeet Singh sent a letter to Mary Simon urging her to refuse any request from Justin Trudeau to call an election, the NDP Leader knew perfectly well she would have no choice but to grant the Prime Minister’s request.

But such grandstanding is nothing new. It seems to be an unspoken role of the Governor-General to serve as a foil for opportunistic politicians who know that many Canadians don’t really understand what the Queen’s representative can or cannot do.

Mr. Singh urged Ms. Simon, who had been on the job one whole day, not to dissolve the 43rd Parliament if Mr. Trudeau requested it, because the Liberal minority government had won every vote of confidence, and the fixed election date is still more than two years away.

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

Mr. Singh was speaking nonsense. If Mr. Trudeau were to ask Ms. Simon to dissolve Parliament and issue writs of election, “she would have no choice but to comply,” said D. Michael Jackson, president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada. “There is no constitutional reason why she should decline the advice of the Prime Minister.”

“The Governor-General’s only option is to acquiesce and dissolve Parliament,” said Andrew Heard, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University who specializes in constitutional issues, though he said he did not think the Prime Minister should be making such a request.

Because Canada’s Westminster-style constitution is largely unwritten, not everyone agrees on everything. But generally speaking, here is how things work:

After a federal or provincial election, the party in power before the legislature dissolved may remain in power, even if that party won fewer seats than another party, provided it has the confidence of the legislature. After the 1925 federal election, Liberal prime minister Mackenzie King chose to meet Parliament, even though Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives had won more seats. Mr. King was able to govern, for a time, with the support of the Progressive Party.

If the governing party loses a vote of confidence after it meets the legislature, the governor-general or lieutenant-governor does have a choice. On April 29, 2017, Liberal premier Christy Clark visited B.C.’s then lieutenant-governor, Judith Guichon, after the Liberals were defeated in a vote of confidence following the provincial election.

Ms. Clark advised Ms. Guichon to dissolve the legislature and call another election. Ms. Guichon could have done that. Instead, she invited NDP Leader John Horgan to test the confidence of the legislature. The Greens had already announced they would support the NDP.

“If there is a viable alternative government, within a relatively short period after an election, the governor-general can consider refusing the advice for an election,” said Mr. Heard. But Mr. Trudeau has governed in this Parliament for almost two years.

In 2008, when prime minister Stephen Harper asked then governor-general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament, even though the Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois had announced they were ready to defeat his government and install Liberal leader Stéphane Dion as prime minister, Ms. Jean followed Mr. Harper’s advice, because his government had survived a vote of confidence on the throne speech, several weeks before.

In 1926, when Mackenzie King faced losing the confidence of the House, he advised governor-general Julian Byng to dissolve Parliament. Instead, Mr. Byng called on Mr. Meighen to form a government. Since Mr. King had governed at that point for several months, he should not have done that. In any case, Mr. Meighen’s government was swiftly defeated and Mr. Byng had no choice but to call for an election, which Mr. King won.

Politicians understand how the system works: Apart from the very early days of a hung Parliament, the governor-general does whatever the prime minister advises. But sometimes opposition politicians play games. After the 2004 election – when Liberal prime minister Paul Martin helmed a minority government – Mr. Harper, as opposition leader, NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe sent governor-general Adrienne Clarkson a letter urging her not to dissolve Parliament if Mr. Martin failed to obtain the confidence of the House. That letter was also grandstanding: Ms. Clarkson well knew her prerogatives.

The governor-general, as the Queen does, has the right to advise, to encourage and to warn her prime minister. If Mr. Trudeau does ask for dissolution, Ms. Simon might very well advise, encourage, or warn. But she will say that in private, and then she will do her duty.

As Jagmeet Singh knows perfectly well.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article inaccurately said that Mackenzie King asked for the dissolution of Parliament because he had lost the confidence of the House of Commons. In fact, he asked for dissolution to prevent a non-confidence vote from occurring. This version has been corrected.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.