Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Canada's head of state

There was a lot of argument recently when the Governor General spoke of places she has "travelled as head of state." It ended up being a fairly predictable republican-monarchist polarity (in much the same way any discussion of abortion other than among ethicists rarely advances beyond allegations of premeditated infanticide and fascist designs on women's bodies). Since today we had a lecture on Kripke and identity, I have the following reflection to offer:

I think it's uncharitable at best to read Her Excellency's remarks as being a claim that There is a head of state of Canada and I am she and I have travelled. The phrase is relational - she "travelled as head of state." And this she certainly does, for while royal prerogatives undoubtedly continue to have their font in the Sovereign, they are permanently delegated to the Governor General. The Sovereign remains the ordinary minister of these powers, if you will, as monarchists rightly remind us. But by convention she is pleased to entrust them to her viceroy when she is not present to exercise them in person.

Her Majesty, we must recall, is the queen of no fewer than sixteen independent states. The Letters Patent form part of our constitutional inheritence. While the Sovereign is free to alter or revoke them, in the meantime the Governor General's role is enshrined in a special, permanent way, in contrast to the office of prime minister, which was unknown in the written constitutional law prior to the Canada Act of 1982). She exercises royal prerogative at the Sovereign's pleasure, but the office of Governor General is especially set up for this purpose in an officially defined and permanent (though not in the sense of irrevocable) fashion.

We mustn't think of the viceroy as like the White House press director, simply the Sovereign's mouthpiece when she isn't around to speak for herself. Instead, her function is perhaps more like that of the president pro tempore in the United States Senate - the Vice President of the union remains senate president, but there is an officially authorized delegate. Or think of the Bishop of Dover, who functions as the diocesan bishop of Canterbury even though he is not such, when the incumbent's duties are international in scope and he must often be away from his see trying to provide primatial oversight to the United States* (who most definitely did not order that pizza) to ensure that they don't go soft on teh gayz. Indeed, we rightly use the title "Commander in Chief" to refer both to the Queen and to her duly delegated viceroy, who in her absence is appointed to exercise executive authority on her behalf. Think of the Governor General as the Holy Ghost, if you will. Her power does not contradict the sovereignty of its origin.

I'm not a constitutional lawyer, but it seems to me that republicans have at times misused the Governor General's special rôle as a means of reducing the Queen's visibility, while monarchists have at times been too dogmatic in playing down that rôle.

*Yes, I know that the province also includes Haiti, China, Colombia et. al. but there is no good non-US-centric name - just ask the Scots how they feel about their daughter church's rebranding - so tough.


BillyD said...

I wish we would drop the whole TEC thingee; I try to use ECUSA instead (or PECUSA when I'm being a contrarian). Claiming that we do it because of our overseas provinces makes it seem as if we're trying to stake out some international territorial claim. As far as I know, we are fostering Haiti, China, etc. - and when and if they became able to function on their own we would let them go and wish them Godspeed.

radical royalist said...

I think, this is a very fair explanation of a Governor-General's rôle. As we in Australia go through the same discussion I consider your reflections very useful.

Felicity Pickup said...

Nicely analysed and clearly explained!