David Johnston, international man of almost no intrigue

Paul Wells on the Governor General’s autonomy—or lack thereof
Governor General David Johnston responds to questions during a one-on-one interview with reporter Heather Scoffield at his official residence, Rideau Hall, in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 28, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
Patrick Doyle/CP

News that the Governor General will meet with aboriginal leaders (or at least with those aboriginal leaders who are pleased to show up) after Friday’s meeting with the PM (if it happens) at Rideau Hall (unless the venue changes) offers us our umpteenth opportunity to consider the autonomy of governors general and lieutenant governors.

They have none.

OK, for the sticklers in the audience, I’m willing to amend that to: they have limitless autonomy which they essentially never exercise. Which is the same as having no autonomy.

The PMO sent out word today that David Johnston will have a “ceremonial” meeting with First Nations leaders, at Stephen Harper’s request. Then Rideau Hall sent out a communiqué saying the same thing. I would be surprised if the timing of the two communiqués was not co-ordinated, so the PM’s staff speaks before the GG’s. This is as it should be, and as it has been since Lord Elgin signed the Rebellion Losses Bill.

One of the enduring modern bits of Ottawa lunacy has been the persistent belief that governors general will do something besides what the prime minister asks them to do.

After the 1995 referendum, Preston Manning wrote to Romeo LeBlanc asking him to fire Jean Chrétien. It didn’t work. Manning was good enough to admit later it had been a silly idea.

Much later, when the press gallery grew weary of Chrétien, it became popular to speculate that Adrienne Clarkson might take the prime ministership away from him and give it to Paul Martin. That didn’t happen. When the Liberal party rose up against Chrétien, Clarkson kept following his advice until, much later and after his party had held a convention to select his successor, he visited her to resign.

When Harper called an election ahead of his own fixed election-date law, Colleague Coyne invited Michaëlle Jean to refuse dissolution. She declined. When the Liberals and NDP formed a Bloc-backed coalition to replace Harper, he asked the GG to prorogue Parliament. Coyne invited her to refuse. Instead she followed her PM’s advice. When he sought prorogation a year later he got it. When Dalton McGuinty sought it late last year, the lieutenant governor there granted it.

It is possible to concoct an exquisitely narrow set of circumstances in which a governor general might arbitrate between two options. Essentially the circumstances would amount to manifest chaos beyond anything any of us has ever seen. Short of that, every day of the year the GG will do what the PM asks. This is how Canada can be both a monarchy and a democracy. It’s grade-school stuff. But Ottawa is full of people who think it is sophisticated to expect what has not happened in the lifetime of any of us.