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With Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell, in frail health, set to retire, PM must choose replacement with care

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Donald Ethell

More significant change is coming to Alberta's government in the wake of last week's election of Premier Designate Rachel Notley's New Democratic Party government -- and I'm not speaking of the interim appointment yesterday of former infrastructure minister Ric McIver as leader of the much diminished Progressive Conservative caucus in the Legislature.

No, I am reliably informed that Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell, who will be 78 in July, has let it be known he will retire within about a week.

Frail and sometimes barely able to walk without assistance after five years and one day as the Queen's Representative in Alberta, the much-decorated former soldier who was a veteran of 14 Canadian peace-keeping missions abroad met with Notley last week to formally establish that she is capable of forming a government.

While he never gained the public recognition enjoyed by his predecessors Lois Hole and Norman Kwong -- the former beloved for her warmth and success as a businesswoman, author and horticulturalist during her service from 2000 to her death in January 2005 and the latter admired as a professional footballer and the first person of Chinese heritage to serve as Alberta's vice-regal personage during his tenure from 2005 to 2010 -- Ethell performs his duties with dignity.

Arguably, he would have been within his rights to refuse to sign the Redford Government's clearly unconstitutional Bill 45, which placed severe restrictions on the rights of all Albertans to speak freely about public sector labour relations. He is said to have considered this course of action, although in the event he consented to the bill in the name of the monarch.

Bill 45, passed by the PC-dominated Legislature in December 2013, was never proclaimed by the government as the law of the land. It was repealed by the PC Government led by now-departed premier Jim Prentice in March 2015.

Had Ethell refused to give the law Royal Assent, he would have been the first Alberta lieutenant-governor to exercise that vice-regal power since 1938, when John C. Bowen refused to sign to three bills passed by the Social Credit government of premier William Aberhart. Two of those bills would have put the province's banks under the control of the provincial government and the other would have forced newspapers to print government propaganda.

Doubtless to his great relief, as a result of the NDP majority on May 5, Ethell was not required to exercise his other important constitutional power as Lieutenant-Governor -- choosing who will get to lead the government in the event no party leader can summon enough support to win the confidence of the House.

In Canada, the prime minister selects provincial lieutenants-governor, who are normally required to fulfill only a ceremonial and symbolic role. Nevertheless, as we have seen, a lieutenant-governor's constitutional powers are real, and very significant, if seldom exercised.

It is certainly not unheard of for former elected politicians to be tapped for the job -- both Bowen and Grant MacEwan, lieutenant-governor in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sat in the Alberta Legislature as Liberals.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will need to show some finesse and not choose anyone who has been recently involved in partisan politics -- I refer, just in case he happened to be thinking of him, to Preston Manning.

Manning, of course, intervened dramatically in Alberta politics in his role as godfather of the neoliberal right only weeks ago, when he brokered the shocking and undemocratic floor-crossing deal between most of the Wildrose Opposition led by Danielle Smith and Mr. Prentice’s PC Party.

Just yesterday Manning's eponymous "centre for building democracy" emailed out a screed asserting "it's a fair bet that Rachel Notley's rookie team of social workers, students, yoga teachers and Chavistas is going to mess things up as badly as the NDP did in Ontario and B.C." While there is little evidence for this proposition about NDP governments in B.C. and Ontario, we hear it repeated often enough by the right to give it a veneer of verisimilitude.

Such blatant partisans of course have an important role in a democracy, but it ought not to be in a job that requires the credibility and trust necessary to act with balance, impartiality and diplomacy.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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