John Fraser is the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College. D. Michael Jackson is president, and Michael Valpy is a board member.
These are tumultuous times at Rideau Hall.
Reports that Governor-General Julie Payette – whose appointment in 2017 was much lauded for her high-profile and storied career as an astronaut – has overseen a “toxic” culture of alleged staff harassment and made expensive renovations to her residence at Rideau Hall have brought negative attention to the office of the governor-general. The secretary to the Governor-General is also under fire for her treatment of staff, as well as for being selected because she was a personal friend of Ms. Payette, rather than an experienced public servant with institutional memory and knowledge of the system. Now, the Privy Council Office has entered the fray, announcing an inquiry into the allegations. This is troubling for a historic and prestigious position at the summit of Canada’s system of government, representing a Queen widely recognized as the ideal constitutional monarch.
The spotlight being cast by this imbroglio could also provide the necessary impetus for reform of the method of viceregal appointments – not just of governors-general, but of their provincial counterparts, too, where prime ministerial patronage is often unfettered.
In our recently published book, Royal Progress: Canada’s Monarchy in the Age of Disruption, former Quebec Liberal senator Serge Joyal warns against choosing governors-general for their perceived celebrity status, which encourages them to “glamorize the function” of the role and to promote their personal views. The office, he says, is meant to “keep political power in check and preserve a symbolic zone beyond which politics does not venture.”
For Mr. Joyal, there is “an expectation of dignity, rectitude, decorum, tact, and historical sense” in the national representative of the sovereign – and potential candidates should be assessed accordingly. But partisan patronage has returned, especially in the appointment of lieutenant-governors, including a former cabinet minister of Justin Trudeau’s federal government. The reserve powers of the Crown, for example, could come into play in a minority government situation, and in their symbolic role, Simon Fraser University political scientist Andrew Heard says, lieutenant-governors should “personify the provincial society and polity as someone who is above politics and who can appeal to all in their community.” Partisan appointments cast doubt on the ability of the viceregal office to fulfill either of these roles.
In the Canadian system of parliamentary democracy, there is a strong element of trust reposed in the government and the prime minister of the day to choose carefully among candidates to be a governor-general or lieutenant-governor. People should only be appointed after a lifetime of service to Canada and should clearly understand the non-partisan, constitutional and representational nature of the positions they are asked to fill.
Obvious factors – a respect for the role of the Crown and Parliament, facility (where appropriate) in both official languages, a special understanding of the relationship between the Crown and the Indigenous population – are prerequisites, along with an appreciation of the formal but intimate relationship with the people of Canada, which covers everything from the country’s or the provinces’ honours systems to the support of diversity in its various manifestations. Maladroit appointments undermine the symbolic authority of the Crown and have proven embarrassing to both the government of the day and more especially the people of Canada and its provinces.
But there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Under Stephen Harper’s government, a committee of experienced experts in the field consulted widely and recommended to the prime minister a short list of suitable candidates for the viceregal offices. This process brought us a superb governor-general, David Johnston, and equally effective lieutenant-governors such as Elizabeth Dowdeswell in Ontario, Janice Filmon in Manitoba, and the late Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau in New Brunswick. (Full disclosure: John Fraser was a member of the committee that recruited Ms. Dowdeswell.)
Ironically, the present Trudeau government adopted a similar system for Senate appointments while it jettisoned the one tried and proven for the viceregal offices. These important positions – and the Canadians they serve – warrant a selection process that is above reproach. The imminent replacement of lieutenant-governors in Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec offers an early opportunity for reform – not to mention the choice of the next governor-general.
Should the governor-general decide to resign under pressure, as happened in Australia in 2003, some hastily appointed successor now being mooted among Ottawa insiders is not the way to go. With the chief justice filling in as administrator, there should be a time-out to find a suitable incumbent through a proper process – and to allow the beleaguered office of the governor-general to realign and prepare for someone new.
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