Please explain Canadian Politics to me

I ran across a new item about the Governor General of Canada extending Parliament. I have little understanding of the Commonwealth and any Parliamentary systems. So, can anyone explain to me what is going on in Canada and how a non-elected official can seem to wield a lot of power such as the Governor General?

From Governor General of Canada:

She, (or he) usually doesn’t wield much power, except in ceremonial ways, like the Queen over in England. Most of the time the GG’s functions are performed at the behest of the elected Prime Minister, but there are a few places where, depending on interpretation, he/she is allowed to use judgement in terms of ‘what’s best for the country’ as a sort of check/balance.

In this case, there’s nothing too startling going on in terms of the GG’s actions. She has dismissed our parliament ‘on a break’, which is a routine enough thing, and often done at the request of the PM.

The unusual bit is that it wasn’t long since this parliament was elected - it hasn’t accomplished that much, and the various opposition factions have been making noise about forming a coalition to defeat the minority government and run the country themselves. So ‘proroguing’ parliament is seen as a delaying tactic to put off the defeat of the government, which is unusual, but refusing Harper’s request would have been seen as an unconventional move too, with possible long-term political implications.

Hope that this helps.

There’s a longer thread already going on this topic that you might want to check out: Canadian Dopers: How Big a Deal is “Suspending” Parliament?

There are two ways that a Parliament can stop sitting without going to an election: each House can adjourn of its own motion, or the Governor General can prorogue the Parliament.

When the Houses adjourn, the order of business stays exactly as it was when the House adjourns, and the Parliament is still in session. They just take up where they left off when they return.

The other way is prorogation. This is a prerogative power of the Crown to end the current session of the Parliament. When the Parliament is prorogued, that’s the end of that session and the business currently in front of the Parliament. When the Parliament is called back by the Governor General to start a new session, it starts afresh, although there are ways to bring back previous items that had not been dealt with when the Parliament was prorogued.

Although the power to prorogue and to call Parliament to a new session are prerogative powers of the Crown, they are almost invariably exercised on the advice of the Prime Minister. That is the principle of responsible government in the Westminster system, to reconcile the constitutional powers of the unelected Crown with the democratic principle of the elected government. The Crown always acts solely on the advice of the Prime Minister, who then takes political responsibility for the advice he has given to the Crown.

There are rare occasions when the Crown may be entitled to act independently, but in those rare cases, the Crown’s function is to ensure that there is a government to carry on the nation’s business, in accordance with the Constitution; it is not the Crown’s function to favour one particular political view over another.

In this particular case, the current minority government was facing a political crisis, with the Opposition parties threatening to bring it down on a confidence measure. The Prime Minister advised the Governor General to prorogue the Parliament to a date in January, to give him time to deal with the situation. She did so, acting on that advice, for which the Prime Minister takes the political responsibility.

At the risk of not adding anything new, I just wanted to highlight something in view of the OP’s question:

As Norther Piper and chrisk have cogently explained, the Governor General acted on the advice of the Prime Minister in this case, not on her own. She could have refused to do so, technically, but it would have been somewhat of a Constitutional crisis if she had. On the other hand, if the Prime Minister had asked for a longer break in Parliament, she almost certainly would have refused him, and asked the coalition of other parties to form a government to replace the current one (which is what the current Prime Minister is trying to avoid).

Here’s a very good site for explaining many of the inner workings - Welcome to the Parliament of Canada.

The Governor-General exercises the functions of ‘Her Majesty The Queen In Right Of Canada’ in the Queen’s absence (i.e. normally). In the past they were usually British and necessarily had some discretion delegated to them given the speed of communication. Today they are normally natives of the country in question and are nominated by it’s Prime Minister. Canada has in recent times nominated a series of nonentities to the post, presumably to degrade its prestige to the point where they can be safely ignored or overruled.

More precisely, if she had refused him then Parliament would have remained in session and the government would have had to face the confidence vote. Assuming it lost that, then Harper would have gone to the GG again to resign and presumably ask her to dissolve Parliament and call an election. At that point she could have refused to dissolve Parliament and call on someone else to form a government that would have the confidence of Parliament.

I beg your pardon? In what sense were Roméo LeBlanc, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean nonentities?

I’d certainly call the last two of those nonentities. And so does the National Review

Adrienne Clarkson was certainly not a person of tremendous acocmplishment, by the standard of being the de facto head of state. She was a successful television personality, but that’s not exactly a big deal. If the United States had an equivalent governmental role, it would akin to Katie Couric being named to that position.

IF the PM had asked for a prorogation for a full year, simply in order to avoid a vote of no confidence, THEN the GG might have been justified in denying him what he asked. But the Government deserves a chance to pull together a budget and legislative plan that would hold the confidence of Commons – so she was more-or-less advised to accept his advice and prorpgue for seven weeks. (And that’s said as someone who doesn’t care for Harper and his policies, but understands the niceties of parliamentary government, sort of.)

It’s worth mentioning that the Governor-General is appointed and dismissed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. In theory all the PM needs to do is make a phone call to Buckingham Palace and the GG is gone. Likewise in theory all the GG needs to do to dismiss the PM is call him and say “You’re dismissed”. Whoever makes the first call get’s to keep his job. This can quickly lead to a severe constitutional crisis as happened in Australia in 1975.

Since this is GQ - I will simply point out that the Nation Review has articles like The Palin Pick and that is evidence that an American, East Coast, Conservative think-tank is not going to be very objective about appointments by Canadian Liberal Governments.

More precisely, according to an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail of Dec. 2, if the GG had refused his request, he would have had to resign immediately since the “crown had refused the advice of the Government”. I suppose that he would in practice have asked informally and she would have informed him informally that she was going to turn down the request. Even so it would have been pretty humiliating.

Incidentally, this whole fracas was caused by the fact that he decided to govern as though he had a majority government since he couldn’t credit that all three opposition parties could come together to defeat him. He did fine when had a smaller minority since then he governed as a minority PM. Essentially, he proposed a budget that was unacceptable to all three and they were about to defeat him. His action was cowardly because under a parliamentary system, a government must always be prepared to have a confidence and he ducked this one.

Nothing of the sort happened; the government proposed no budget at all. Budgets are almost invariably proposed in March; the current plan to propose one in January actually makes it quite early.

They opposition parties rebelled because the Conservatives proposed cancelling government funding for political parties.

Quite right. And of course there’s recorded evidence that the coalition was being planned even before said economic update statement.

Well, I disagree strongly with both you and the National Review. Did you read the list of Adrienne Clarkson’s pre-1999 accomplishments? She was the first GG who was a member of the Order of Canada before she was made GG. Premier William Davis appointed her the Agent General for Ontario in France. She had two ACTRA awards, a Gemini and a Gémeaux. I saw seven other Gemini nominations and her citation for the Order of Canada reads “One of our best-known media personalities, she has hosted more than three thousand five hundred television programs in one of the most respected careers in Canadian broadcasting history. She also served as the hard-working and successful Agent General for Ontario in France. She is a dedicated patron of the arts, journalism and many charitable organizations including the Kidney Foundation, Horizons of Canada and P.E.N. International.” That’s not a non-entity.

I think your opinion reflects a lack of respect for journalism, broadcasting and culture. Far from appointing non-entities, the Liberals have broken with the tradition of appointing politicians and gained much by appointing people who have an appreciation of the breadth and depth of what this country has to offer culturally. At least for a few years, we have had Governor’s General who have actually read the books that the awards were given out for.

And as for the the notion that our GGs were given the post presumably to degrade its prestige to the point where they can be safely ignored or overruled. - may I point out these were Liberal appointments? What makes you think they want to mess with the post of Governor General? Codswallop is the first and cleanest word that comes to mind.

RickJay: The comparison to Katie Couric rather falls down when considering awards. Katie Couric has an Associated Press award and an Emmy. Has Katie Couric earned anything else, in any other languages? I think Adrienne Clarkson had accomplished a lot more that Katie Couric before she was named to the post.

We’ve had a thread on the Order of Canada before; it’s not a very exclusive award. It has throngs of “members,” many of whom are people of no more professional success than lots of people you know. A lot of people seem to get it because they’re in well with the local Chamber of Commerce, and people who know them put them up for it.

I don’t see how she’s any more accomplished than lots of television personalities. Imagine if the U.S. elevated Bob Costas to a high governmental post. You’d laugh your ass off.

Walter Gretzky just received the Order of Canada, apparently for work he’s done with various charities. I don’t think he would have performed the same amount of work with various charities if his multi-millionaire son wasn’t backing him.

Hey, I’m not bashing Walter, or even Wayne, and it’s certainly nice of them to consider the less privileged, but Order of Canada for being the philanthropic distributor of your son’s money?