John Fraser is the founding president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada.
The resignation of Julie Payette from the office of Governor-General is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy for the office, which is often misunderstood by many Canadians, and a tragedy for Ms. Payette herself, since she emerges from a reportedly scabrous report outlining the toxic atmosphere she presided over at Rideau Hall with her reputation in tatters.
There are protocols dealing with such a situation and until the Prime Minister finds someone new to recommend to the Queen to replace Ms. Payette as governor-general, the Chief Justice of Canada, Richard Wagner, will fill in for the role as the country’s chief administrator of the office.
It didn’t have to be like this and maybe that’s the real tragedy. Whatever anyone thinks of Stephen Harper and his Conservative administration, it had developed a good system for searching out and vetting possible candidates for all the vice-regal positions in Canada – the lieutenants-governor of the provinces, as well as the governor-general. It was rejected by the Trudeau PMO, although officials there liked the system well enough to adopt it for appointments they made to the new-style Senate. Instead, there was a return to the old behind-closed-doors system in which no one quite knows how someone is chosen. When that doesn’t work, everyone suffers: the nominated but unprepared innocent who gets picked, the PM when it blows up in his face, and most of all the country itself.
Under the evolved Westminster-style system of governance in Canada, the governor-general is officially appointed by the Sovereign upon the recommendation of her Canadian prime minister. It is left up to the prime minister of the day to figure out how to come up with an appropriate name. There are delightful tales from the past about how capricious some choices were, but what cannot be denied is that sometimes it did work and we have had some great governors-general under the old system: Vincent Massey, Georges Vanier, Roland Michener and Adrienne Clarkson were all, in their own individual ways, outstanding.
Mr. Harper took the appointment of the Queen’s representative quite seriously and thought that the old system was too prone to appointing ex-politicos, so he set about to try something different. This is how it worked: the office of the Secretary to the Queen of Canada appointed two permanent members to a vice-regal selection committee. In addition, when a vacancy was expected in an office, either at Rideau Hall or in one of the provinces, two more members would be appointed to this body. In the case of the provinces, they were always chosen locally. In the case of Rideau Hall, appropriate national appointments were made.
It was then the job of the committee under the Secretary’s leadership to come up with five names to recommend to the prime minister and these would be names that had been thoroughly vetted. That was how David Johnston came to Rideau Hall. It’s also how Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the highly successful and still presiding lieutenant-governor of Ontario, was selected. The process allowed members of the committee to travel the province or country and visit schools and institutions, service clubs and churches, business centres and charitable institutions.
This allowed the members of the committee not just to hone in on suitable persons, but also to explain the vice-regal roles to everyone, which was a useful public education exercise. I was on the Ontario committee and remember vividly disappointing a junior high school crowd when I had to explain that the prime minister couldn’t really recommend Tim Horton to the post because one of the requirements of the position was that the office holder be alive. It had nothing whatsoever to do with free donuts on the Queen’s birthday!
It is easy to understand how attractive the thought of appointing Ms. Payette as governor-general would have seemed at the time. All the publicly available information was excellent: She’s bright, she’s a star thanks to her journeys to outer space and she’s a francophone. What wasn’t dealt with was explaining (a) how crucial and occasionally tricky the job was constitutionally, with an emerging importance focused on Indigenous reconciliation, and also (b) how tedious it can be for a lot of the time. Many of the perks are dubious and include coping with security guards 24/7 and living in the midst of a domestic and professional circus of rotating players while making polite conversation, even when you want to scream in someone’s face.
No prime minister should want to take on the job of locating suitable candidates for this important post without such a committee. It’s a form of protection for the PMO and it’s a guarantee to the country that the right people are being considered. I suspect Justin Trudeau, who said the vetting process needs to be in improved, has got the message now.
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