Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

Staying Out of the Refrigerator

January 1, 1988 -

Expediency, it seems, is the main factor people consider when making decisions or formulating policy today. This is one reason why it is now fashionable to look down on authority, especially institutionalized authority. An article by retired senator Eugene Forsey in the current issue of Saturday Night magazine is a refreshing reminder of the value of tradition, of understanding our history, and of the need for principled thinking in politics.

Eugene Forsey is one of Canada's oldest and most knowledgeable experts on constitutional law, and his incisive observations about Parliament and law have instructed many generations—or at least should have. Rumour has it, reports Forsey, that Ed Schreyer, formerly Canada's governor general and now high commissioner to Australia, might re-enter active politics. And why shouldn't he? ask many, including Schreyer himself. After all, there's no written rule forbidding it. But Forsey, in an argument based on historical lessons and political principle, clearly demonstrates that former governors general ought never to return to active politics.

Forsey reminds us that the office of governor general is not merely a token position, and purely for ceremonial purposes. Rather, this office has a crucial function, especially in cases of deadlock in Parliament or in unforeseen emergencies during a parliamentary recess. Then the governor general provides continuity and represents real constitutional power. Forsey describes a worst-case scenario, in which a minority government perversely refuses to summon Parliament in order to retain its power, and states, "The governor general would be our sole protection against usurpation by an unscrupulous government." To play that role, however, the decisions of a governor general must be above any suspicion of partisanship. That is impossible if he were allowed to consider a return to active politics sometime in the future.

But what is a young retired governor general to do besides becoming president of a university or writing his memoirs? That is getting the thing the wrong way around, responds Forsey. The issue is not Mr. Schreyer's private welfare (and a former governor general has a respectable pension, he points out), but the office of the governor general. Forsey concludes:

When a person accepts the office of governor general he forfeits his right to go into politics on retirement or later. Anyone who is not prepared to accept that limitation should not accept the office. To vary Harry Truman's words, "If you can't stand the cold, stay out of the refrigerator." 

Pondering Forsey's sensible advice about an issue of profound importance to the well- being of our country makes one suddenly aware of how rare this kind of wisdom regarding the institutions of government is nowadays. Relativism is now the reigning ideology in the path of which literally everything is trivialized. There is a great need for this kind of no-nonsense advice in just about every other area of our society as well.

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment