Howard Anglin: Please, Trudeau, this time, give us someone pleasant and boring.
In choosing a new governor general, Trudeau must recall Johnston’s example and, more importantly, to the best and literal role model: the Queen, the very apogee of bland reliability.
By: Howard Anglin
As high-profile jobs go, it’s pretty hard to mess up as governor general. Even by Ottawa standards, where there’s an entire house of parliament populated with sinecures, it’s a cushy gig. It’s right up there with Consul General to Los Angeles and whatever portfolio Maryam Monsef currently holds, but with more perks and, to be fair, more real work (also, it’s a little known fact, the best pension plan in Canada). All of which makes Julie Payette’s brief, turbulent tenure — I was going to say, “at Rideau Hall,” but then I remembered she never actually moved in, so, I suppose “being shuttled by government jet between Rideau Gate and her Laurentian cottage” — all the more remarkable.
The grumbling from Rideau Hall staff began early. It was whispered that Payette didn’t like maintenance staff in her line of sight, that she didn’t seem to understand the urgency of granting Royal Assent to legislation (her primary official duty), even that she had asked that bagpipes not be played at ceremonies she attended (which is, frankly, downright unCanadian). Some of it was the usual scuttlebutt that accompanies the replacement of a beloved and familiar figure with an unknown outsider, but there sure seemed to be a lot of it.
Giving Payette the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible she didn’t know much about the role of governor general before she accepted it, which would be fitting as Trudeau apparently didn’t know much about Payette when he offered her the role. Certainly his office wasn’t prepared for questions about the assault charge filed against her (and later expunged) in Maryland in 2011, which media outlets quickly found using public-records searches. If she wasn’t familiar with the vice-regal position, it would at least explain why she was so spectacularly ill-suited to it.
Payette started off on the wrong foot when she announced that she wasn’t going to move into Rideau Hall (one of two official residences, the other being in the old Citadelle de Québec), because the 100,000 square foot mansion didn’t offer enough privacy. She stumbled further when, in a speech to the 2017 Canadian Science Policy Convention, she asked incredulously, “Can you believe ... we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process?”
It wasn’t just that Payette took a personal swipe at the more than two-thirds of Canadians who don’t believe that the order of the universe emerged unbidden and unguided, or that her speech violated the protocol that the Queen’s representative not comment on matters of public policy (her speech also targeted climate change skeptics, though I think her comments on that front were in bounds, if impolitic). More importantly, she violated the informal rule that the vicereine draw no negative attention — and preferably no attention at all. When it comes to the execution of the governor general’s official duties, glib is good, but bland is better.
Trudeau may have sold Payette’s appointment to Canadians as an inspiration to women in STEM disciplines, and he may even have sold Payette on the job with assurances that she would have some vague (and constitutionally inappropriate) influence on federal science policy, but none of that is in the job description. The job is to give instantly-forgotten speeches in one official language and then stumble through shorter remarks in the other, dole out awards to worthy writers of unread books, and to represent the government on occasions when the prime minister is not available or wishes to be unavailable.
This last role, while less flashy than the eponymous annual performing arts gala, is, unlike that event, actually important. In 2015, Stephen Harper tapped then-governor-general David Johnston to attend the funeral of Saudi King Abdullah and, in 2016, Justin Trudeau similarly dispatched him to the funeral of Fidel Castro. In each case, Canada was able to fly the flag (monarchies like Saudi Arabia, especially, feel no slight as they understand that the governor general represents the head of state, while the prime minister is merely head of government) and the prime minister was able to dodge uncomfortable questions about our relations with aging autocrats.
A capable governor general is a diplomatic asset to a government, someone who can press Canada’s interests with the world leaders she meets as head of an official Canadian delegation. This is, of course, all the more reason that she have a diplomatic temperament. It would not have taken many phone calls to Payette’s former employer, the Montreal Science Centre, to rule her out on that ground alone. As reported by the National Post, an anonymous former employee complained that: “She was not careful with people, she had a lack of empathy for people,” which, as the author drily observes, “does raise the question ... of whether someone with this kind of management style should have been appointed to a diplomatically sensitive job like being governor general.” Well, quite.
So now Payette is out, but the person who recommended her appointment should not be off the hook so easily. The current gossip may centre on Rideau Hall, er, Rideau Gate, but this was a scandal made next door in Rideau Cottage. The question has to be asked: How did someone so unsuited to the job get it in the first place?
The answer goes back to Trudeau’s early decision to mothball the Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments. That committee was struck by prime minister Stephen Harper in 2010 to choose the last governor general and, since 2012, it had vetted and recommended all new lieutenant governors and territorial commissioners. As deputy chief of staff to Harper for the last years of his tenure, I oversaw this process for the selection of three L-Gs and one commissioner.
The committee had three permanent members: the Canadian secretary to the Queen, who chaired it, and two other members, one anglophone and one francophone. Two ad hoc members were added from the relevant province for each lieutenant-governor search. The committee’s job was to publicize the vacancy and to reach out to premiers, mayors, civil society organizations, business and community leaders, university presidents and deans, retired military officers, professional organizations, and anyone else likely to be interested in the role or to have suggestions. From this search the committee developed a long-list, which was whittled down to a short-list, who were interviewed by the members.
The prime minister provided some general advice to the committee at the beginning of each selection process, but otherwise stayed out of it until the very end, when he met with the committee in person in Ottawa. At that meeting, each member presented his top three candidates in ranked order and, every time, the prime minister jokingly complained that their good work in finding so many qualified candidates made his job of selecting just one more difficult.
Harper’s final choices invariably reflected his initial advice. He believed that candidates should be non-partisan; have the gravitas to fulfill the role and the personality to engage with Canadians from all walks of life; they should have a record of serving Canadians either through philanthropy, community leadership, public service or military service; and they should understand the duties and, even more importantly, the limitations of the Queen’s representative in our constitutional system. He also believed the job should be the capstone of a career and not a stepping stone to future employment; he believed there was something unseemly about a former viceroy looking for work after leaving office. (It is bad enough that taxpayers are still funding Clarkson’s vanity project, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, more than a decade after she left office, and that the former government felt obligated to promote Jean’s personal campaign to head the Francophonie).
In choosing Payette, Trudeau not only impulsively threw out a proven selection process, he ignored the broader advice that led to so many successful appointments. This includes her predecessor, David Johnston, who was the perfect balance of competence and commonplace, professionally distinguished and personally indistinguishable (so much so that, in the course of writing this article, I’ve had to look up his name twice to check whether it is spelled with or without a “t”). While I can’t quite forgive him eschewing the traditional civil uniform in favour of dressing like the secretary of a suburban yacht club, in all other respects he was an unimpeachable viceroy.
I don’t expect that Trudeau will re-convene the old vice-regal advisory committee to choose Payette’s replacement or follow the sound advice Harper gave to its members. But I do hope he will look to Johnston’s example and, even more importantly, to the best and literal role model: the Queen, the very apogee of bland reliability. At the very least, let’s have no more “inspired” choices, no more “famous in Canada” celebrities, and, please God, no more CBC royalty. Give us dull. Give us boring. Give us a ceremonial cipher with an easy smile and no strong opinions, someone past retirement age but still soldiering on, committed to serving Canada with as little excitement, flair, or panache as possible.
Howard Anglin was deputy chief of staff to prime minister Stephen Harper and is currently a post-graduate researcher in constitutional law at Oxford University.
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