A recent article by Nicholas MacDonald and James Bowden1 quite rightly stressed that in the democratic age the reserve powers of the Crown should be rarely used. They say that “most scholars” agree that it is only under the “most exceptional circumstances” that the governor general may reject the prime minister’s advice. I entirely agree with that statement, and would go further and say that virtually all scholars agree on that general proposition. That indeed is the constitutional convention that enabled a parliamentary system dominated by the Crown to evolve into a parliamentary democracy. But that convention clearly implies a corollary convention about the exceptional circumstances when the Crown might exercise discretion and say “no” to a prime minister. If there is a convention that governors general normally accept the advice of prime ministers in exercising their legal powers in relation to parliament, there must be a convention or principle that enables us to identify those “most exceptional circumstance” when the governor general would be constitutionally correct to reject the prime minister’s advice.
On that question, it is my view, and it is a view that I believe is shared by a great many constitutional scholars, that “in this democratic age, the head of state or her representative should reject a prime minister’s advice only when doing so is necessary to protect parliamentary democracy.” Those words of mine are quoted, with what I take to be approval, by MacDonald and Bowden in their article. The justification for the convention is to ensure that parliamentary government is democratic and not controlled by an hereditary head of state or her representative. It follows that if a prime minister’s advice seems seriously adverse to the functioning of parliamentary democracy, it should not be followed. An authoritarian prime minister might be as much a threat to parliamentary democracy as an authoritarian sovereign. In each case we rely on conventions, a body of constitutional or legal ethics”, as A.V. Dicey explained, for guidance on the proper use of legal powers.2