The Governor General, Poodle of the Bureaucracy

I do pity the Governor General at times. There is an enormous amount of public ignorance surrounding her office, which gives rise to all manner of unrealistic expectations about what she can and can’t do. Then, when the GG fails to meet those expectations, she becomes a lightning rod for criticism. It’s all tremendously unfair, because in most cases the Governor General is a hapless figure, thoroughly irresponsible and ignorant of the many decisions which are made in her name.

Take for example, the present petty scandal over the case of the late Constable Christopher Garrett, a police officer from Cobourg, Ontario.  

In May of 2004 Garrett was dispatched to respond to what turned out to be a bogus robbery tip, set up by a deranged teenager named Troy Davey. Having lured him into his trap, Davey proceeded to slit the officer’s throat . Before bleeding to death, Garrett managed to shoot Davey in the leg, badly wounding the teen, who was later arrested after checking into an emergency room.  

Garrett was celebrated as a town hero in the aftermath of his death. It was later revealed that Davey had been planning to go on a massive cop-killing spree that day, including a stopover to bomb the police station. By giving his own life, Garrett was heralded as having nipped a potential massacre in the bud.

The community figured that Garrett should get some sort of posthumous medal for his actions, namely the Governor General’s Cross of Valour, which is Canada’s highest decoration for bravery. According to the GG’s website, it recognizes “acts of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme peril.”

Rideau Hall does not just hand these things out, however. First the relevant police department (in this case) is expected to do a thorough investigation of the nominee, to verify all the facts of the case, and determine if the individual in question meets their criteria for being sufficiently “brave”. Problem is, this takes time, and the Canadian legal system does not always make all the facts of a case readily available for public consumption.

So there is inevitable conflict with Rideau Hall’s rather odd demand that all medal applications be verified and awarded within “two years” of the incident. Considering that Mr. Davey was only convicted in February of 2007, it was therefore impossible to gather the necessary information in time for Constable Garrett to be able to receive his posthumous award.

His supporters submitted a late application anyway, but it was promptly rejected by Rideau Hall earlier this month. The rejection has proceeded to trigger a tidal wave of indignation and protest, including petitions from police officers and letters from politicians, all directed at Governor General Michaelle Jean personally.

And of course, the punditocracy has hardly  been silent either:

Says Don Martin of the National Post:

“…our ‘hot’ Governor General has become a bit of a ‘not’ recently, and this procedural inflexibility won’t polish her once-glowing aura. […] If Ms. Jean continues to dig in her heels on a stuffy point of protocol, might I suggest our law-and-order Prime Minister demand she bend the rules so that Const. Garrett can receive his well-deserved medal posthumously.”

…says Colby Cosh, again in the Post:

“One can’t help feeling that this is what comes of trying to fit a liberal, someone of inherently republican sentiments and instincts, into an office that symbolizes monarchical tradition.”

…and even harsher words from Joe Warmington in the Toronto Sun:

“[If I ever] get within earshot of Her Majesty, I will ask her to relieve Michaelle Jean from her duties immediately and send her back to the CBC where she can find out how frustrating it is to cover the lack of logic and pure stupidity of the likes of her.”

Amid all the hubbub and whining about the Governor General, one huge fact goes unmentioned. The Governor General does not award medals.

Medals in Canada, from the Order of Canada on down, are actually awarded by various secret boards of shadowy figures. In the case of medals for bravery, such as the Cross of Valour, the medals are doled out by something known as the “Canadian Decorations Advisory Committee.” Their board consists of:

The Clerk of the Privy Council
-The Secretary to the Governor General
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of Canadian Heritage
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of National Defense
-The Deputy Minister of the Department of Transportation
-The Commissioner of the RCMP
-“up to four additional members” (it is unclear who any of these are at present)

It’s quite remarkable how bureaucratic-dominated these boards are. Nary a single elected representative to be found on most of them. But that’s another issue.  The bigger story this mini-scandal should highlight is just how useless the Governor General really is, even from a monarchist perspective.

We generally accept that the Governor General is a figurehead, in the sense that most of her powers are non-political and ceremonial. But what’s less well-known is that even her figurehead duties are largely delegated to other people. Duties such as granting pardons, giving royal assent, and handing out medals are all jobs which are outsourced to other individuals, who then make decisions in the GG’s name.

The Governor General has no medals which she can award unilaterally; it’s all done by committees which she does not even sit on. Contrast that to say, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States, which is awarded “at the sole discretion of the President.”

The problem with constitutional monarchy is that the monarch, and by extension, her representatives, have no real public legitimacy or mandate to do anything. Because the Governor General and Queen are unelected and unaccountable, they are constitutionally distrusted and given virtually no independent powers of their own. At best, they can only meekly obey the orders given by agents of the political class.

Of course, this breeds new problems, because the institutions that arise to boss the Governor General around are often not terribly accountable to the public either (who the hell knows who the Deputy Minister of Transportation is? And why is he in charge of deciding who our country’s greatest heroes are?).

At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is the simple fact that we don’t really have a head of state in Canada, in any serious sense. We have a person who prances around and acts as a head of state for photo-op purposes, but all powers of the office (even the seemingly insignificant ones) are exercised by either politicians or bureaucrats.

When Canada ditches the monarchy and gets a republican head of state, one hopes he or she will be far less of a poodle of the bureaucracy, and more trusted to exercise powers and discretion in an independent manner. I suspect this would indeed be the case, because, as mentioned, at present the “institutional distrust” of the Governor General—ie, the fact that we have all these bureaucratic structures built up to prevent the GG from being involved in any sort of decision-making process—is largely a predictable result of having a head of state who is not selected democratically. Since we live in a democratic society an elected head of state would enjoy public legitimacy in making decisions, even if they were the wrong ones. And if she did make the wrong ones, we could at least vote her out or impeach her, rather than having to fantasize about lobbying the Queen to do so.

It will interesting to see how medal-gate eventually plays out. Someone may step in to make a decision and see that the late Constable Garrett receives his Cross of Valour somehow. But I can assure you, no matter what eventually happens, it won’t be our powerless Governor General who makes the decision.



8 responses to “The Governor General, Poodle of the Bureaucracy

  1. Congratulations on the new blog and good luck in your republican endeavors.

  2. Very good start to your new blog.

    I must bring issue to one point, however. While you are absolutely correct in your point that a Republican head of state would be more culpable and identifiable of a target for both praise and criticism, it is nonetheless somewhat of an erroneous statement to make that Governor General Jean is exempt from criticism on account of her figurehead status. Granted, I am an American who’s time in monarchist countries have been excluded to half an hour in Windsor, Canada and three weeks in New Zealand, I was under the impression that in addition to serving as a public rallying figurehead, the purpose of such a ceremonial position was also to serve as a protection position for the real policy makers. To possibly sound overly critical, the incorrect public backlash against Jean is not only incorrect at who it should be pointed towards, but also incorrect in failing to point adequate blame on the system itself. With Jean as a bull’s eye for people wanting to complain, in this circumstance the Clerk of the Privy Council, the Secretary to the Governor General, and all the others (notably the four unnamed folks) are able to rest easily knowing that they will be able to continue work unabated.

    In other words, what this story seems to highlight to me, is that not only does the system fail to give recognition to those that deserve it for hard and capable work, but also acts as a way of keeping those who really mess up in their positions without consequence for misdeeds or maladministration.

  3. JJ. It’s brando. Sup dude. I’m confused and would like your input. While the GG is generally acts like a beauty pageant winner (especially of late), esentially restricted to giving out awards and cutting ribbons at new PizzaPizza franchises with Bret “The Hitman” Hart and various Maple Leafs, what in the hell would an elected President do? I always found it funny that Germany or France or Palestine had a PM and Prez. Obviously, I never investigated. So what would be the specific realm of an elected President in Canada? Would it still be mostly ceremonial, like in the case of the Queen Mum’s funeral? Do we need another useless figure head, because if that’s all the Republican Prez would be then why not have a sentimental representative of the queen doling out the goodies? We don’t need a Union Jack or anything, and Trudeau gave Liz the boot, but we are what we are and what we were is what made us, ya?

    Also, I immediately realize that maybe, just maybe, you were fucking with us all along as a staunch Republican. I didn’t realize it could mean more than one thing. How funny because in hindsight I don’t hate your views at all, really.

  4. Also, congrats on not using quotation marks all the time, though you did miss a “be” at the start of the final paragraph. But you got your shit in on time so that’s cool.

  5. Well it’s very debatable whether or not a president would be a functional improvement over the status quo. I sometimes think we should just make the PM head of state, and distribute the GG’s powers to parliament in various ways. But for the sake of the mainstream Republic Vs. Monarchy debate, one generally has to presume that we’re making an argument about an elected president versus the Queen and GG. That’s also the official position taken by the Citizens for a Canadian Republic group, which I am a part of.

    I would hope that if we do get a president he or she won’t just be another useless figurehead. There are examples of states that have a fairly functional dynamic between PM and President that brings more checks and balances into their government. France and Germany are good examples of this, so is Ireland and some others.

    I’m sure you agree that the PM has too much power in our system, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the GG is useless, and never vetos anything. If we replaced the GG with someone more functional, then arguably we could have greater oversight of what the PM does, though as I said, this is a whole other complicated debate.

  6. I agree entirely with you last comment. The removal of the Governor General would open up all sorts of powers that could be used effectively by popularly elected persons of any type(be it a president, or parliament, or Prime Minister). At the very least, it would be a shakeup and renewal in our political system, something I’d argue any good democracy needs every once in a while.

  7. Pingback: The myth of the medals continues… « The Republic of J.J.

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