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Harper's quest for a new G-G: partisans need not apply

The secret committee making quiet calls across the country in the hunt for Canada's next governor-general operated under clear orders: non-partisanship and constitutional knowledge were key.

Reading between the lines of their instructions from the Prime Minister, the context was obvious. Six years of minority Parliaments proved crises over election calls and prorogations can land on the doorstep of Rideau Hall. The next tenant may be called on to referee future battles for power in Parliament, increasing the need for political independence and legal knowledge.

"A blatant partisan would not have made it," said one person who was asked to submit names to the committee and requested anonymity. The committee did not put it so bluntly, but the individual said the parameters were clear during the private discussion.

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For the first time, a formal process was set up by Prime Minister Stephen Harper this year to search the country for potential candidates to replace outgoing Governor-General Michaëlle Jean. While the government said they were consulting, it was not until Sunday - three days after the appointment of University of Waterloo president David Johnston to the job - that the Prime Minister's office revealed the members of the committee and their marching orders.

An e-mail to journalists written by the Prime Minister's director of communications, Dimitri Soudas, confirms the directions provided to the committee.

"The members were guided by one key question in assessing their recommendations to the Prime Minister: 'Will the next Governor General be able to serve without partisanship and according to the Constitutional role he/she will be given?' " he writes.

When asked why the Prime Minister would include the directive about partisanship, Mr. Soudas replied that it is because the position is non-partisan.

"This is not about politics," he stated.

Queens University professor Ned Franks, who was not consulted, said that by raising the issue of partisanship, the government gave the committee a crucial understanding that candidates with strong partisan ties would be discouraged given the current political atmosphere.

"My impression is that the committee would probably consider strong previous partisanship as a … handicap," he said.

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Mr. Franks praised the new process created by Mr. Harper and recommended that it be made permanent in law.

Mr. Soudas's statement outlining the process goes on to say that the committee consulted across the country with individuals who were aware of the governor-general's role, but also with those who could provide suggestions based on their first-hand knowledge of the people they proposed.

The committee was chaired by Sheila-Marie Cook, who has worked as the secretary and deputy to the governor-general since September, 2006. The committee members included University of Calgary political science professor Rainer Knopff; the Senate's Usher of the Black Rod, Kevin MacLeod; McGill University political science professor Christopher Manfredi; Christopher McCreery, private secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia; and historian Jacques Monet.

Ms. Jean and her predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, were both CBC journalists when they were appointed by Liberal governments. The three governors-general before them all had ties to either the Liberals or the Tories.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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