Philippe Lagassé: Former governors general should be neither seen, nor heard
Serving as a vice-regal representative should be the last public role an individual performs. That's what the money is for.
By: Philippe Lagassé
David Johnston is an honourable man. As a former governor general, he holds the title of Right Honourable and he wears it better than many former prime ministers who share that moniker. Johnston is also a champion of trust in democratic institutions; he literally wrote a book called Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country.
Although his appointment has been plagued by questions about his perceived conflicts of interest, it’s hard to accept that Johnston set out to protect the Liberal party. Whether one agrees with him or not, Johnston's conclusions were arrived at sincerely and in keeping with his view that "Democracy is built on trust." Unfortunately, his recommendation against a public inquiry is not only bewildering from a political perspective, but could erode the very trust in democracy that he wants to strengthen.
Whatever we think about Johnston's first report, we should be concerned with his appointment as the special rapporteur. Aside from the perceived conflicts of interest, we should ask why a former governor general accepted the role in the first place. Serving as a vice-regal representative should be the last public role an individual performs. Any other public duty performed by a former governor general or lieutenant governor, however well-intentioned and performed, carries risks that can diminish these offices. Johnston’s experience is a cautionary tale for future vice-regals.
The governor general is the second-highest office of the Canadian state, under the monarch alone. The King’s representative performs most of the Crown’s head of state functions in Canada, both constitutional and ceremonial. Official independence and non-partisanship are essential parts of the head of state function. Canadians should be able to trust (there’s that word again) that governors general will be impartial in the exercise of their constitutional powers. We need only look at the 2008 prorogation controversy and the 2017 election in British Columbia to see why this matters for Canadian democracy.
Although less vital, independence and non-partisanship are also important for the governor general’s ceremonial roles. Having the governor general bestow honours ensures that Canadians are recognized by a neutral, but high-standing, representative of the state. An ardent Conservative can receive the Order of Canada while a Liberal government is in power without wincing, since the prime minister and cabinet are kept at a safe distance from the whole thing.
Having clearly non-partisan vice-regal representatives is a relatively recent approach in Canada. Until the late 1990s, it was common to appoint former politicians. Adrienne Clarkson’s appointment in 1999 was a move away from this practice. No governor general has been a former politician since, though former cabinet ministers have been appointed as lieutenant governors. A move back to appointing former politicians as governors general would likely garner a highly negative response, and rightly so. The governor general’s spending on travel, catering, and clothes already leads to partisan sniping and calls to tighten Rideau Hall's budget; if a former partisan opponent held the office in our current political climate, the attacks would be far worse.
Yet the main mechanism to keep the governor general independent and above partisan politics, regardless of their past career, has been their retirement annuity. This annuity provides governors general with a generous income (approximately $150,000) after they leave office, on top of any other savings and pensions that they may hold. They also get money to start up a charitable foundation and can have their official expenses reimbursed after they leave.
Since governors general tend to be in office for about five years and make just over $350,000 while serving, this is a pretty sweet deal. The salary and annuity are meant to guard the independence of governors general against any financial enticements or offers of future employment. If governors general were worried about their income security after they leave office, the theory goes, they would be susceptible to influence from partisans dangling plum appointments and business connections in front of them.
In effect, the annuity is supposed to give former governors general “fuck you money”; anyone who tries to influence them can be told off. In less crass terms, the annuity allows governors general to mirror the independence the monarch enjoys in the United Kingdom owing to their hereditary position and considerable wealth.
Now, Canadians might ask if this is a good deal. The instances where a governor general exercises their discretion are few and far between, and it might seem like a lot to pay to protect the independence of a largely ceremonial office. But there’s something inherently valuable about head of state offices being insulated from partisan shenanigans and influence peddling. That’s one of the virtues of parliamentary systems that divide the functions of heads of state and government.
A former governor general, then, might be seen as the ideal person to serve as an independent rapporteur into foreign interference. They were understood to be politically neutral in their previous role and are able to make calls, such as not recommending a public inquiry, without having to worry about the political fallout. One could argue that Johnston was able to ignore calls for an inquiry precisely because of the independence he's accrued. Unfortunately, the fact that he didn't recommend an inquiry has provoked the opposite reaction from critics: that he isn't independent enough.
But a former governor general is not the only person who could have done this job independently. A former deputy minister, head of an intelligence service, or retired military officer could have done the same, perhaps with no potential conflicts of interest, real or perceived. One of these individuals would also speak more authoritatively about what could or could not be disclosed as part of a public inquiry, and whether the intelligence process failed to work as intended.
That's why instead of asking whether a former governor general could do the job, we should ask if there are reasons they shouldn’t. Since being appointed, Johnston has become a partisan target. Rather than operating above the partisan fray, he’s been pulled right into it. He’s had to defend himself against these attacks and has also had choice words for the media’s role in this controversy. He’s found himself making recommendations to partisan actors on what they should do next, and come close to aligning himself with one party over another on contentious issues, such as the adequacy of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians as a form of parliamentary oversight (n.b. it’s an executive body, not a legislative one.)
Suffice to say, this is not a good look for someone who held the second-highest, non-partisan office in the land. Regrettably, his much lauded time as governor general will now be seen through the prism of this more recent role, which has fundamentally clashed with the core attributes of a vice-regal office.
Former vice-regal representatives should take heed. They would do well to avoid becoming a new set of “retired Supreme Court justices,” whose judicial halo effect has become comically overused to stem political controversy. Indeed, Canadians should insist that the governor general’s salary and annuity come with a tacit bargain: you were set for life to ensure your impartiality and independence, now we never want to hear you wading into political controversies or see you hold another public office again.
This should not be too much to ask of the King’s representatives. No other public role has the formal role stature of a vice-regal office, aside from the monarch, and none are as carefully insulated from partisan battles. The office of governor general should be held by those at the end of a remarkable career, as a final act of independent and impartial public service.
Philippe Lagassé is associate professor and Barton Chair at Carleton University.
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