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Let MPs vet G-G candidates, and show hearings, Clarkson says

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Nominees for governor-general should be approved by Parliament, limited to a six-year term and be required to tell Canadians what their job is all about, says former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson.

Ms. Clarkson said the parliamentary crisis in December amply demonstrated Canadians' lack of knowledge about how their parliamentary system works and, in the wake of a historic U.S. election, their confusion over the differences between Canadian and American forms of government.

She said parliamentary confirmation hearings - possibly televised - would give the governor-general's post a higher visibility and let the public see who will represent them abroad, perform the ceremonial functions of state and hold the constitutional powers to protect Parliament and democracy.

"They're the embodiment of the nation, and I think the nation should see who is going to embody them," she said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Referring to British constitutional philosopher Walter Bagehot's notion of the mystery of the Crown - and his famous injunction to not let "daylight in on magic" - Ms. Clarkson said it was fine for the Crown to be a mystery when "it was a little old lady [Queen Victoria] in widow's weeds at Balmoral Castle for 40 years.

"But I don't think with native-born Canadians being governor-general that they should be mystery. I think they should be known. I think they should be not mysterious."

She would still have the prime minister nominate a candidate. Fixing the term of office at six years would mean every governor-general would experience two governments, which constitutionally are limited to five years, and therefore be experienced in office when or if the government changed.

In Canada's constitutional monarchy, the governor-general is the Queen's surrogate as head of state, nominated by the prime minister and formally approved by the Queen. The Constitution requires the governor-general to act on the advice of the government in all but a few precise special circumstances where she exercises what are known as the reserve powers - powers which do not require the approval of any other branch of government.

The issue arose in December when Prime Minister Stephen Harper December asked Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to prorogue - or suspend - Parliament so that his minority government would not be defeated by a vote in the House of Commons. The request was all but unprecedented. Ms. Jean had the discretionary reserve power to refuse or grant prorogation. She granted it.

University of Toronto political scientist Peter Russell said the idea of having governors-general approved by Parliament merits consideration.

"It would strengthen the legitimacy of the governor-general as a non-partisan umpire of the rules of parliamentary democracy," Prof. Russell said yesterday. The Queen, he said, would have veto power, but likely would not use it. "If a Queen turned down a name that came in that way, it would be a huge disruption of our relationship within the Commonwealth," he said.

Ms. Clarkson was governor-general from 1999 to 2005 and for two prime ministers, Mr. Chrétien and Paul Martin. She said Mr. Chrétien had enormous respect for the functions of Parliament and for the governor-general's office. She recalled him calling her one morning and asking to speak to her immediately.

"What he wanted to do was tell me that he would be going into the House of Commons in the afternoon to tell Parliament that we would not be joining in the Iraq invasion."

She said she saw her role as an educator on Canada's parliamentary democracy and as part of the glue of Canadian social cohesion. She recalled that, after Sept. 11, 2001, she had lengthy conversations with cabinet ministers, opposition leaders and senior government officials about how they saw it affecting Canadian society. "Because that gave me the sense that I could go back out among Canadians and give them the sense that I knew what was going on."

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