What would happen if the role of the lieutenant-governor wasn’t constrained? There’s plenty of precedent in Canada
“ … various lieutenant-governors have exercised the powers given to them by law and convention.”
— From the article “A Tradition of Vigilance: The Role of Lieutenant Governor in Alberta,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, 2007
It’s been nearly seven years since I wrote a column suggesting it was time the feds let this province catch up with the rest of the country by appointing a woman to the post of lieutenant-governor. There are many worthy candidates, to be sure.
Well, that hope was dashed again this week with the appointment of Frank Fagan to Government House, though I wish him well in the role.
And, in fact, the more I think about it, the less crestfallen I am about the whole gender issue.
Why? Because the way the lieutenant-governor’s role is structured in this province, it doesn’t really matter who is in the job as long as they are able to carry out what are largely ceremonial duties.
Outgoing Lt.-Gov. John Crosbie once quipped that the most important role he plays at Government House is taking out the dog. He was joking, of course, but he is always quick to acknowledge, as well, that the holder of that office has to submit to being politically neutered.
The lieutenant-governor is described as “the representative of the Queen in the province (who) exercises powers … essential to the workings of the constitutional monarchy in Canada,” but those powers are largely prescribed.
There’s no teeth to the role.
According to the job description on the Government House website (and kudos to whoever rewrote it since last I read it, to make the language gender-neutral — offering at least the possibility that a woman could fill the role):
The lieutenant-governor must always ensure that the post of premier is filled following resignation or death and that a government is in place following defeat at an election or in the House of Assembly. Additional governance responsibilities include: administering oaths of office to members of the House of Assembly and ministers of the Crown so they may take up their duties; summoning, proroguing and dissolving the House of Assembly; assenting to legislative bills in order for them to become law; and signing into force orders-in-council, proclamations and other official documents on the advice of cabinet.
Those are a lot of duties, but none of them are horribly taxing — unless you consider the overwrought speeches-from-the-throne that Crosbie has had to read aloud.
The job description also includes hosting receptions, handing out awards, attending events and acting as patron to a host of worthy causes, which the Crosbies have done admirably and without stint.
What the online job description does not spell out — at least in this province — is what the lieutenant-governor must not do.
Check out the websites of the lieutenant-governors in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, however, and it’s spelled out for you: the position is non-partisan and apolitical.
Now, we all know John Crosbie well enough to say with assurance that there must have been times during his stay at Government House that he had to bite his tongue hard enough to make it bleed.
Hardly a master of reticence, he is to be commended for having kept his own counsel over the years, particularly during spectacular blunders like the government’s blatant interference in the presidential search at Memorial University, where Crosbie had been the longtime chancellor. (Psst! Your Honour: wanna write a tell-all? Call me.)
Perhaps Crosbie was unaware that there are other models a lieutenant-governor can follow.
As Alfred Thomas Neitsch writes in the Winter 2007 edition of Canadian Parliamentary Review:
“A contemporary misconception exists in Canada that the governor general and the lieutenant-governors are politically impotent. In fact, they have considerable power, both of a legal and political nature.”
The article outlines a long Canadian tradition of lieutenant-governors who fully exercised their powers, particularly in Alberta, which has a rich history of “interventionist” L-Gs.
In fact, one “was roundly criticized during the constitutional crisis of 1937-38 for demonstrating weakness unbecoming of a lieutenant-governor.”
By the 1970s, Alberta’s first aboriginal lieutenant-governor was publicly opposing the policies of the government.
“If I get too controversial, I suppose they will be looking for a new lieutenant-governor,” Lt.-Gov. Ralph Steinhauer acknowledged in 1976, though he later was quoted as saying, “The Queen has the right to speak out. If I’m the representative of the Queen here, I have the same privilege.”
In the 1990s, Alberta Lt.-Gov. Gordon Towers declined to sign an order-in-council that he felt “inappropriate,” saying that the office of lieutenant-governor is “not just a rubber stamp.”
In 2005, Lt.-Gov. Norman Kwong openly disagreed with Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s opposition to a province-wide smoking ban in public places.
And there are many other examples.
Now, some people have suggested the position be abolished, and I wouldn’t object to that. But until that day comes, perhaps we should heed history and strengthen the role of our lieutenant-governor and allow the person holding that office to advocate on the people’s behalf, when necessary.
Yes, what we need is an L-G who is allowedly to speak freely if government policy impinges on the public good (think Bill 29). Someone — male or female — with a sharp mind and quick wit; a free-thinking maverick. Someone who can cut through the political blather and call things as they see them.
No holds barred.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at