“I would love to have been Governor General in December 2008!” – Adrienne Clarkson, 3 February 2011.
Adrienne Clarkson, who served as Governor General from 1999 to 2005, has generated controversy over the expenses that she has incurred since leaving office under a program from 1979 designed to support former Governors General.
The National Post ran several articles on the subject and reported that Clarkson has billed at least $1,100,000 in expenses since leaving office – and possibly more. The National Post’s latest article from 5 November 2018 suggests that Clarkson might have incurred expenses in the range of $200,000 in some years. Essentially, this program appears as a line-item under the budget of the Office of the Secretary of the Governor General as “temporary help services,” but only for the fiscal years where a former Governor General has claimed at least $100,000. Some years might register no line-items because Clarkson claimed less than $100,000. Currently, there is no requirement for proactive disclosure as a matter of course. Prime Minister Trudeau has announced that the government will review the program. Even the Toronto Star opined that that the program should “ha[ve] its limits.”
This is not the first time that Clarkson has come under scrutiny for her expenses. In 2011, the Toronto Star and others undertook similar reporting and noted that, at the time seven years ago, Clarkson had “bill taxpayers for than $500,000 for secretarial help since leaving Rideau Hall in 2005.” The Toronto Star reported on 23 September 2011 that Clarkson billed the taxpayer $117,704 in 2006-2007, $169,098 in 2007-2008, $155,579 in 2008-2009, and a further $115,875 in 2009-2010.
All of this reminded me of a one of the Adrienne Clarkson’s speeches that I witnessed firsthand at the University of Toronto on 3 February 2011. I took notes on it at the time. Clarkson gave this speech as part of a broader joint event between the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights and the Department of Political Science. The first part of the event involved a talk on the Conservative-Liberal coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg presented by British constitutional historian Robert Hazell of the University College London’s Constitution Unit. As the original event poster indicates, “The lecture [was] followed by a reception in the Rowell Room with the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson.”
The following day, 4 February 2011, the Asper Centre also hosted a roundtable discussion on the constitutional conventions of Responsible Government, which Peter Russell organized. Peter graciously allowed me to attend and sit in on that event, which ultimately produced a report entitled Adjusting to a New Era of Parliamentary Government: Report of a Workshop on Constitutional Conventions. I will not delve more deeply into that aspect of the event, however, since I promised Peter at the time to maintain the Chatham House Rules and our gentlemen’s agreement, and will continue to honour those terms. (Incidentally, I am cited in footnote 13 of that report for having brought to their attention the Manual of Official Procedure of the Government of Canada).
But this applies not to the content of Clarkson’s presentation; in fact, she explicitly said – which at the time I found odd – that the Chatham House Rules did not apply to her. I can only interpret this as an invitation to quote from her speech and recount its general contents and purpose, though I did not see any journalists reporting on the event from the room.
I was invited to Adrienne Clarkson’s presentation but not to the dinner which followed. The attendees of Professor Hazell’s presentation and the participants in the workshop that would take place the following day were standing in the Rowell Room as Her Excellency spoke from the podium. Clarkson gave a somewhat operatic, perhaps even melodramatic speech, which extolled the virtues of parliamentary democracy. I very much doubt that anyone in that room disagreed with her.
But one statement piqued my curiosity and, at the time, my ire. Clarkson declared, “I would love to have been Governor General in December 2008,” and a murmur of knowing laughter and contrived applause erupted in approval throughout the room. Clarkson wisely stopped herself there and could thus maintain some plausible deniability – but the true meaning of her cryptic remark was not lost on anyone in that room, whether we agreed or disagreed with it. (That said, I seemed to be the lone dissenter at the time). We all understood that her dog whistle rhetoric signified her thinly veiled disdain for Prime Minister Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada.
Through those words, Clarkson thereby intimated very strongly that she would done the unprecedented and would have rejected Prime Minister Harper’s advice to prorogue the 1st session of the 40th Parliament on 4 December 2008 – even though no Governor General in the history of British North American since the advent of Responsible Government has done so – and thereby have dismissed him from office. Alternatively, she would have dismissed him outright without even allowing Harper to advise prorogation in the first place – and then, in either scenario, would have appointed Stephane Dion as Prime Minister.
On some level, I’m also skeptical of this program where Governors General still receive public funds because it could create a huge conundrum for the principle of ministerial responsibility, as it did on 3 February 2011. The Government is responsible for all expenditure and budgetary policy, which means that the Harper government was ultimately responsible for funding someone (though whether for that particular event is unknowable) who openly undermined the judgement of her direct successor, Michealle Jean, and the prime minister of the day, Stephen Harper, on at least one occasion on 3 February 2011.
In general, I agree with the Toronto Star on this issue: if we maintain this program of “temporary help services” for former Governors General, then it is perfectly reasonable that all expenses be accounted for and published as a matter of course, instead of only being published only after annual expenditures top $100,000 per year, and that benefits be capped at a certain amount. The program should probably also include limits on what kinds of activities remain eligible for reimbursement, too. The credibility of the Office of Governor General itself depends upon proper accountability. Republicans will also seize upon this profligacy as a means of undermining the Crown of Canada, so the Government and Parliament of Canada should nip this corpseflower at the bud.