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Time to reform method of appointing the Governor-General

As Her Excellency Dame Cécile La Grenade is in less than 2 months to celebrate 11 years of distinguished and dignified service as Governor-General of Grenada, one imagines at some point, though hopefully not soon, questions will start to be asked about potential successors to the esteemed Dame.

The office of Governor-General, the representative in this country of our head of state, His Majesty the King, is an office of great importance in the governance of our state.

Though often incorrectly referred to as wholly ceremonial the Governor-General, as our country’s effective head of state in the King’s absence, possesses a number of important constitutional powers and duties.

The Governor-General possesses the power to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Supervisor of Elections, other officials, veto legislation and dissolve parliament for elections, among many other duties.

While mostly dormant or carried out on ministerial advice, the Governor-General’s discretionary authority on these matters can become central and important in extraordinary circumstances.

These powers together with the Governor-General’s ceremonial and cultural role as a unifying symbol above politics make it imperative that the Governor-General’s office is filled by someone, like Dame Cécile, who is beyond reproach, untarnished and unbiased by political ties.

Though the office has so far in our history largely succeeded in that regard, the current process as it stands in appointing the Governor-General has flaws which can undermine this, and is thus ripe for improvement.

Under Section 19 of the Grenada Constitution the Governor-General is appointed by the King. The Grenada Monarchist League fully supports the continuation of this state of affairs and sees no reason to change the constitution in regards to the formal appointment process.

The King is our head of state and is a neutral and nonpartisan arbiter, who stands as a guarantor of the office’s independence. It stands to reason that he is to appoint his representative.

What the League is critical of is the method by which the King is advised as to whom to appoint as Governor-General. Currently, the King is advised on the appointment of the Governor-General by the Prime Minister. This is problematic for multiple reasons.

Firstly is the fact that giving the Prime Minister so much influence (though not total power, as the King can refuse the Prime Minister’s advice) in the appointment of the Governor-General can weaken the office’s role as constitutional arbiter and guardian.

The Prime Minister having a large degree of influence in the appointment of his own superior, the person with the power to remove him from office or check his actions, is a problem. It can give Prime Ministers the mistaken belief that they stand above the Governor-General, and that the Governor-General serves at their, not the King’s, pleasure. This creates a power imbalance, and weakens the systems of checks and balances extant in our constitution.

Secondly it can compromise the office’s political neutrality and unifying appeal. For instance in 1996 where then-Prime Minister Keith Mitchell advised the appointment of Sir Daniel Williams, a former NNP Member of Parliament and Minister, as Governor-General.

Though Sir Daniel discharged the duties of the office with dignity, it is undoubtedly that having a former minister and party member fill the office made it unduly party-political, weakening the opposition’s confidence in the office and its role, and gave the New National Party an undue advantage.

As such, the Grenada Monarchist League urges reform to the process of tendering advice to the King in the appointment of the Governor-General. We propose removing the power of advising the King from the Prime Minister, and instead placing it in the hands of a newly established Grenadian Privy Council.

This body will be responsible for advising the King on appointments, and can also double as a body of advisors to the Governor-General on whichever matter they may request advice on. For the purposes of this, the Grenada Monarchist League has drawn up a proposal for an act of parliament to establish such a council, the Privy Council (Establishment) Bill, which we have submitted to the government for consideration.

The Grenadian Privy Council would consist of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Minister for Carriacou and Petite Martinique Affairs, the Chair of the Public Service Commission, a Judge of the High Court, and 2 members appointed by the Governor-General after consultations with the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. This would make the Council a broad-based body, representing both government, opposition, the sister isles, public service and judiciary.

We propose that the Privy Council, by unanimity, would be tasked with advising the King on appointments to the office of Governor-General. This would truly make the office beyond reproach, as it would require any prospective candidate to have the expressed support of both government, opposition, and other groups.

It would remove the incorrect and harmful notion that the Prime Minister appoints the Governor-General, and make the office a truly effective and thoroughly nonpartisan guardian of our constitution. The appointment process would become much more thorough and scrutinised.

Such a change is a positive for all; for the government, for the opposition, and above all for our country. It insulates the government from potential confrontation with the King and public if they were to attempt to appoint an unsuitable Governor-General, and ensures continued influence in the process when, as all governments do, they inevitably get voted into opposition. It gives the opposition influence in the appointment process, assuring that partisan nominees do not get appointed, and that their voice is heard. It ensures our country has a Governor-General whom everyone, whether green, yellow or otherwise, can rally behind, respect and find inspiration in.

The establishment of the Privy Council and changing the mode of advice to the King would be a simple process. It would not require any modifications to our constitution, and as such would simply require a normal act of parliament. This is because the Prime Minister advising the King on appointments is not a part of the constitution, but simply constitutional practice and norm. A norm which can be altered by simple majority legislation.

One may of course question why this method is preferable, rather than those proposed by the Constitutional Review Commission of 1985 and the National Democratic Congress in their 2018 election manifesto, namely having Parliament elect the Governor-General.

The answer to this is simple: parliamentary election would increase, rather than decrease, politicisation of the office and the Prime Minister’s control. If the Governor-General were elected by parliament then the majority party, which the Prime Minister leads and forms the government, would simply be able to elect into office whomever they wished, no matter the views of the opposition.

This is because the opposition, by their very nature being a parliamentary minority, would of course not have the numbers to oppose such an election.

We have seen this in our neighbouring republics of Dominica and Trinidad and Tobago, where the government has forced through parliament the election of partisan presidents, against opposition protests. Copying this system for the appointment of our Governor-General would be a major mistake, in fact a step backwards.

The Dickon Mitchell government was elected on a platform of a transformational agenda. Reforming the method by which the highest office in the land is appointed, ensuring it will always be in the hands of respected and nonpartisan individuals with broad support, would be an excellent step towards such transformation.

It would strengthen the structure of the state, and provide increased checks on government, both now and in the future. As such, we urge the Prime Minister to include the Privy Council (Establishment) Bill in the next Throne Speech by the Governor-General, and have it passed into law. We equally call on The Honourable opposition to support such a move, which would bring positive outcomes for all, including themselves. Above all, we call on all members of parliament, no matter their party allegiance, to recognise the undoubted good such a reform could have for our country, and come together to enact this important change.

The Grenada Monarchist League