New GG a good choice

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Sun Media, Friday, July 9, 2010

There’s one thing David Johnston won’t need at Rideau Hall, and that’s outside advice on the governor general’s constitutional role in determining the fate of a minority House.

As a lawyer himself and a former dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, Johnston will need no expert counsel to point out the only question before the GG when a minority government falls is the confidence of the House, and whether the opposition can meet that test. Failing which, the GG has no alternative but to give the sitting prime minister an election writ.

There’s one other immutable constitutional fact in our Westminster tradition — no governor general has ever refused a prime minister’s request for prorogation of a parliamentary session.

The prorogation storms of 2008 and 2009 supposedly led Michaelle Jean into murky constitutional waters.

But however controversial, Stephen Harper was in both instances within constitutional bounds in terms of precedent and practice.

This is the third consecutive minority Parliament and in a four-party House, the math of a majority government is daunting.

While the first-past-the-post system of electing MPs was built for majoritarian outcomes, minority governments have become the new normal.

As such, when the prime minister visits Rideau Hall to ask for a writ or prorogation, he should know what answer he’s going to get.

Harper has asked Johnston a question once before, when he referred the Mulroney- Schreiber affair to him and asked whether there should be a public inquiry. Johnston replied that any inquiry should be limited to the financial dealings between the two, which led to the appointment of the Oliphant Commission.

In a lifetime of exemplary academic and community service, Johnston has occasionally been a supporting actor on the stage of public policy. He was famously in the moderator’s chair in the 1984 leaders’ debate and his decision to allow John Turner one more round at the end of a segment opened the door to the defining moment of the campaign — Turner’s statement he had “no option” but to make a slew of patronage appointments and Brian Mulroney’s reply that “you had an option, sir, you could have done better.”

It’s a measure of how well Jean has succeeded in the role as a people’s governor general that there has been so much interest in the appointment of her successor. In the tradition of alternating French and English-speaking GGs, it was the turn of an anglophone, one who is fluently bilingual. It helps that Johnston also lived in Quebec for 20 years, 15 of them as principal of McGill University.

Universities are inherently dysfunctional organizations and it’s a tribute to Johnston’s talents as a consensus builder that he successfully ran two. McGill was already Canada’s world-renowned university, but Johnston added both bricks and brains, in addition to skillfully navigating the shoals of a separatist government in Quebec City that wasn’t known for its friendliness to English language universities.

Waterloo, the school that gave us the BlackBerry guys, has become famous on Johnston’s watch for its R&D agenda. Just the other day, Harper dropped by for a visit with Stephen Hawking.

Perhaps that was the hint something else was in the wind.

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