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Thursday, September 09, 1999A governor-general for half the country
After weeks of speculation about the appointment of a successor to Romeo LeBlanc as governor-general, the prime minister yesterday announced the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson. Ms. Clarkson, a former CBC television host, novelist and the current chairwomen of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, will be Queen Elizabeth II's new representative in Ottawa. She has never held elected office.
In 1994, Mr. Chretien was harshly criticized after he appointed Mr. LeBlanc because of his open Liberal party ties. This time around, he was urged by senior officials and commentators, including the National Post, to appoint a non-partisan figure of independent standing. Ms. Clarkson's appointment was promptly hailed as a break with the recent tradition of placing political "trusties" in Rideau Hall.
But was it? And should the PM be given a passing grade for not appointing another political hack? Or a failing grade for pulling a fast one?
Traditionally, the governor-general has two principal functions. In normal times, he represents the head of state and thus performs what Bagehot called the "dignified" functions of government -- the pageantry and ritual that is intended to express an underlying national unity rather than partisan political division. And in constitutional crises, he represents the national interest by acting as an honest broker between the political factions.
Alas, in the past 25 years the stature of the governor-general has fallen markedly as successive prime ministers appointed political friends whom they could rely on to favour them if any crisis erupted. Not surprisingly, such partisans were not very skilled at the dignified side of their office either.
Ms. Clarkson is not a partisan politician, but she is a highly partisan figure. Following early success at CBC-TV as the interviewer-host of the Fifth Estate, Ms. Clarkson emerged as a spokesperson for cultural and economic nationalists and the left in general. She was an outspoken critic of the Free Trade Agreement because she felt it would upset the state's ability to interfere in the economy. She described the shortcomings of Canadian nationalism as a "failure of will" that required nothing more than government support to flourish. And much else on the public record.
Admittedly, any appointee to Rideau Hall who had played a public role would inevitably carry some inconvenient ideological baggage. Ms. Clarkson's ideological past would be overlooked if she were to make clear from the outset that she intended to divest herself of all partisan loyalties in order to represent all Canadians (and the Queen).
She has, however, done precisely the opposite. Almost her first words were an assurance that she would use her position to promote Canadian nationalism and an activist government as she has done throughout her career. She made it unmistakably clear that she will continue to promote the partisan causes with which she is associated.
"What you have seen is what you are getting," she explained.
How can a governor-general acting on that basis perform either function of the office? Ms. Clarkson cannot represent all Canadians if she continually outrages the political opinions of half the country. She cannot express national unity on solemn occasions if she is a figure who symbolizes disunity the rest of the time. And how can Reform or Tory politicians feel that she will act as an impartial umpire in a constitutional crisis if she has publicly stated she will favour certain political causes (and so, by extension, certain politicians)?
Despite her professional independence as a journalist, Ms. Clarkson is very much part of the political class. She is a proud partisan of the nationalist Canada of the 1970s that has since been rejected not only by the electorate, but by the present government and prime minister; and she has declared she is not prepared to act with the impartiality rightly expected of a governor-general. When Ms. Clarkson rules herself out, who are we to disagree?
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