OTTAWA—As Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh prepared for their first-ever federal election as political leaders, another key figure in Canada’s system of government was making her own preparations — Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.
The ongoing election is a first, too, for Payette since she took on the viceregal role in 2017. And in a month, she could be faced with overseeing a government transition, perhaps even the machinations that could accompany a minority government.
The Governor General relies on a team of her own officials and the Clerk of Privy Council for advice. But it’s been the practice for the viceregal representative to have their own “kitchen cabinet,” a group of academics and experts independent of government to provide counsel on her role and powers.
Rideau Hall officials declined to speak specifically about Payette’s preparations or who she has tapped for advice but confirmed she, too, has been advised by outsiders.
“Throughout their mandates, governors general regularly meet with and are advised by constitutional experts on a range of matters related to their role, including as it pertains to federal elections.,” said Natalie Babin Dufresne, director of communications and public affairs in the office of the governor general.
Richard Berthelsen, who has served as private secretary to two lieutenant-governors and a past adviser at Rideau Hall, said the outside advice helps round out the expertise provided by government officials.
Governors general “have those kinds of advisers to educate them on the previous precedents, the constitutional architecture, the context of things and to look at hypothetical situations,” he said in an interview.
It was Payette who set the election in motion when, on the advice of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Sept. 11, she signed a proclamation to dissolve Parliament. She signed two other proclamations that day. One to issue the election writs, the formal order for an election to elect a member of Parliament; and another to set a date for Parliament to return, in this case Nov. 18, 2019.
It’s because of the governor general’s role in getting the election underway that stately Rideau Hall is typically the backdrop for a prime minister’s first comments about the campaign.
Depending on the results, the spotlight could shift back to Rideau Hall after election day on Oct. 21.
But academic Philippe Lagassé says the governor general’s role in a new government’s formation is often overstated and misunderstood.
“Her role is fairly circumscribed. The margin for manoeuvre here is actually pretty limited,” said Lagassé, an associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.
“Most of the time the governor general doesn’t really need to do very much because the political actors will figure this out for themselves,” he said.
But political drama can sometimes land on the doorstep of Rideau Hall, as then Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean discovered in 2008. That’s when prime minister Stephen Harper asked her to prorogue Parliament. At the time, Harper’s minority government was facing a confidence vote from a coalition of Liberals and New Democrats and likely defeat.
The governor general typically accepts the prime minister’s advice. But there was still uncertainty — real or imagined — whether Jean would grant Harper’s request. There was speculation about a constitutional crisis if she said no. Demonstrators denouncing the opposition coalition gathered outside Rideau Hall, and it was a suspenseful wait as Harper was left cooling his heels while Jean met her own advisers. In the end, she granted his request for prorogation that spared his government.
In August, there was similar drama in Great Britain when Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to the Queen to ask her to prorogue the British Parliament for a five-week break. The move outraged critics of Johnson because it gave Parliament less time to intervene ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline for Great Britain to exit the European Union.
The move was condemned as an “offence” to democracy, even a “coup.” Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the Queen to protest “in the strongest possible terms.” Despite the criticisms, the Queen approved the request for prorogation — which is now being challenged in British courts — underscoring the convention that she takes advice from the prime minister.
With the days counting down to the current election, it’s useful to review the role of the governor general and the various scenarios she could face after the ballots have been counted.
For starters, it’s important to remember that the prime minister who went into the election — in this case Trudeau — remains prime minister. “Trudeau is first minister until he formally resigns,” Lagassé said. “That’s the key thing for people to bear in mind if things look like on election night if you have a hung Parliament.”
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It’s also important to remember that the government remains in place during the election. “There is a government throughout, always, at all times,” he said.
“We are never in a situation where the public service is governing or the GG herself is governing. Ministers are always ministers and the prime minister is always the head of government until he resigns or is dismissed,” Lagassé said.
Who governs in Canada is determined by which party can command the confidence of the Commons, either by holding the majority of seats or winning the support of a rival party.
The simplest election scenario is if one party wins a clear majority. If, for example, the Conservatives win a majority, Trudeau likely would announce his intention to resign as prime minister on election night, Lagassé said. He would also signal that to the governor general. She would then commission Scheer to form a government. He becomes prime minister designate and a transition period would begin, usually stretching two or three weeks, to allow him time to meet senior public servants, choose his cabinet and get ready to govern.
During the election and ensuing transition period, “caretaker convention” dictates that the government show “restraint” in its activities. “The public service and the GG are much more empowered to push back on anything involving impropriety or decisions that shouldn’t be made,” Lagassé says.
The scenarios get more complicated in a minority situation, when one party will require the support of its rivals to govern.
If the Liberals have the most seats but fall short of the 170 seats needed for a majority, there’s no “forming” government since they already are the government, Lagassé stresses. “The Liberals are still the government. This is where people start to amplify the GG’s role. (Trudeau) doesn’t even have to see her. He doesn’t need her permission,” he said.
“In that scenario, if he believes he can cobble together some kind of agreement with another party, he just stays in office and goes with a throne speech and then goes for it,” Lagassé said.
If another party wins more seats but is short a majority, custom dictates that the party with the plurality gets a shot at governing, he said. But that too requires they can muster the political support to command the confidence of the House.
It’s when a minority government is defeated that the governor general has more discretion to act. If a government falls within six months, a governor general would typically poll the opposition parties to see if they could form government, Lagassé said. After six months, the likely action would be another election.
During David Johnston’s time as governor general, an extensive manual of precedents was compiled with the help of experts and the Library of Parliament. Drawing on events at the federal and provincial levels and other Commonwealth countries, the manual examines various scenarios that might confront a governor general or lieutenant-governor and lays out options and outcomes.
“That exists. That is available to her present excellency,” said one official with knowledge of the workings at Rideau Hall.
Lagassé said misunderstandings continue to swirl about the governor general’s role, confusion often fuelled by the dearth of official explanations. “You would hope that Rideau Hall, whatever happens, explains ‘OK, here’s what occurred and where is what is happening next’,” he said.
Correction — Sept. 22, 2019: This article was updated from a previous version that mistakenly said 178 seats are needed for a majority. In fact, 170 seats are needed.