Close federal election race puts spotlight on Canada's governor general

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      With the fall federal election looking like a three-way race, an expert on constitutional law says a number of scenarios could unfold if no party wins a majority.

      According to Margot Young, a professor in UBC’s Allard School of Law, Governor General David Johnston may do either of three things: one would be to grant the party with the most seats the opportunity to rule as a minority government; another would be to allow a coalition of parties that can muster more numbers than the party with the plurality; and a third would be to call another election.

      Although Young noted that the third situation is a “very highly unlikely outcome”, it demonstrates the crucial role of the governor general in exceptional circumstances.

      “That’s actually why people are saying [that] should that circumstance arise, you want to have someone with quite a bit of constitutional wisdom and savviness in the position of the governor general and that David Johnston might be such a person,” Young told the Straight in a phone interview about the former law professor and dean.

      “It’s something the governor general has to consider and, obviously, will take constitutional legal advice about,” she continued. “The really important point here is that there are no formal rules that dictate how the governor general must behave in this circumstance.”

      Exceptional circumstances also include a minority government getting defeated by a vote of confidence. The prime minister may ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament to pave the way for a new election, or a group of other parties can ask for the chance to form government.

      “There’s always an opportunity for the opposition to say: ‘Hang on. Let’s not go to a general election. We can cobble together a coalition that will allow us to govern,’ ” Young said, describing this as a “completely legitimate outcome”.

      That was why it was “so distressing” when the Conservatives prorogued Parliament in 2008 when it looked like the Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Québécois could constitute a coalition government. According to Young, it was one of those rare circumstances when the governor general—Michaëlle Jean, at the time—could have said no to the prime minister’s request to suspend parliament.