With his customary concern for accountability and due process, the Prime Minister has summarily declared Julie Payette to be an “excellent” Governor-General whom he has no intention of replacing, days after the launch of an independent review of her allegedly toxic employee relations, on the grounds that “nobody’s looking at any constitutional crises.”
What can he have meant? Removing a governor-general need not mean any sort of crisis, constitutional or otherwise. The Queen appoints the governor-general on the advice of the PM; the Queen can, and ordinarily must, remove her on the same basis. There would be a crisis only in the event that the governor-general whom the prime minister had advised the Queen to remove were about to remove the prime minister.
But how would that situation arise? With Parliament shortly to return from its traditional summer suspension of embarrassing committee revelations, the Governor-General is set to deliver a Speech from the Throne that could lead, given the current alignment of seats in the House, to the government’s defeat on a non-confidence vote. Ordinarily, the prime minister would then advise the governor-general to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections; ordinarily, the governor-general would be expected to follow his advice.
Unless, of course, she were not an excellent governor-general. An unexcellent governor-general might take it into her head, the prime minister having lately resigned his commission, to call upon someone else to fill the job. If Parliament did not have confidence in his leadership, it might yet have confidence in another’s, and thus spare the country the time and expense of another election – to say nothing of the public health risks – in the middle of a pandemic.
That would not be the conventional choice. To refuse a dissolution would ordinarily be contemplated only if the government had fallen within a few weeks, months at most, of being elected, and a prudent governor-general would not wish to buck convention. That really would be the stuff of constitutional crises.
But we have just heard the Prime Minister say she is an excellent Governor-General, and not at all the kind who would defy her first minister in such circumstances, even if he were the kind who had recently failed to defend her against her critics. So that’s the end of that.
It does rather leave the question hanging, however, of what, in the Prime Minister’s judgment, constitutes excellence in a governor-general. The accusations that Ms. Payette had a history of harassing and humiliating her employees (for example, by suddenly demanding they name all the planets) are hardly the only charges of peculiar and erratic behaviour to be lodged against her since her appointment – or, indeed, before it.
There was the criminal charge, withdrawn shortly thereafter, of second-degree assault in a dispute with her ex-husband in 2011. There was her reportedly troubled tenure as head of the Montreal Science Centre, some of whose employees recall a pattern of behaviour strikingly similar to what has been alleged at Rideau Hall.
And there is the long trail of other criticisms she has attracted in her current post: of her reluctance to perform her duties (with one-third fewer public appearances in her first year than her predecessor); of her attempts to intrude on matters, from government policy to the honours system, that were not within her purview; of the expensive alterations she ordered made to Rideau Hall, her official residence, although she has to date declined to live there; of her persistent refusal to accept the advice of her RCMP security detail; of her general discomfort with the rules of convention, decorum and public diplomacy, in a job whose chief occupational requirement is deference to the rules of convention, decorum and public diplomacy.
Whether any of this is enough to warrant Ms. Payette’s removal may be debated. But it surely does not add up to an “excellent” record; if so, one has to ask what she would have to do to qualify as mediocre.
But, of course she is an excellent Governor-General in the Prime Minister’s eyes. She must be, because it was he who appointed her, and entirely on his own initiative, without referring the decision to the advisory committee set up by his predecessor. If she were not an excellent Governor-General, it would mean the Prime Minister had not made an excellent choice.
So that’s the end of that.
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