Philippe Lagassé is associate professor at Carleton University, where he researches the Westminister system of government.
In her role as governor-general, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette has been in the spotlight more often than one might expect. After a rocky start to her vetting process, reports have circulated about her disinterest in the ceremonial functions of her role, as well as her discomfort with her security detail and the expectation that she live at Rideau Hall. The latest controversy comes from a CBC investigation into an allegedly “toxic” environment of verbal abuse and harassment that she and the secretary to the governor-general had cultivated in Rideau Hall.
It’s enough to make one long for the days of boring governors-general. And indeed, now is a good moment to remember that governors-general should be uncontroversial – that while this isn’t the only quality we look for in a vice-regal, it should be one of the most important. Governors-general who cause rows – owing to perceived biases, misuse of powers, or concerns about their suitability – undermine what is already a poorly understood and underappreciated office.
As the Queen’s representatives, governors-general must be seen as neutral, steady-handed guarantors of Canada’s system of responsible government. While the governor-general almost always exercises the Crown’s head-of-state powers on the advice of the Prime Minister, there are circumstances where vice-regals can act with discretion, such as denying a request to dissolve Parliament. We need only look at British Columbia’s 2017 elections for an example, where then-lieutenant-governor Judith Guichon rejected premier Christy Clark’s request to call new elections after she lost confidence, and instead invited John Horgan to form government. To effectively perform this kind of constitutional guardianship, governors-general should not be saddled with accusations of misbehaviour or doubts about their judgment.
Governors-general also serve the country as the head of nation, representing Canadians through the honours system and other ceremonial functions. Vesting these duties in the governor-general prevents politicians from appropriating the symbolism of the state for partisan ends – a turf which successive prime ministers have encroached upon. This means that governors-general need to embrace their ceremonial work and ensure that Canadians respect the office-holder without hesitation.
Not all vice-regals are well-suited for the job. Although prime ministers have mostly stopped appointing former cabinet ministers to these positions, anyone with evident partisan preferences should be disqualified (though this patronage remains as issue with provincial lieutenant-governors). And while it is quite rare, vice-regals also have committed crimes while in office. During the final year of her decade-long tenure, former Quebec lieutenant-governor Lise Thibault was accused of misusing official funds. She was subsequently found guilty of fraud and breach of trust in 2015.
Ms. Payette hasn’t been accused of overt partisanship, nor have this week’s harassment allegations been proven or appear to involve any crime. But these latest reports have cast further doubt about her appointment. While the Governor-General’s secretary has since pledged to foster a healthy working environment at Rideau Hall, reputational damage has been done. Being representatives of the Queen, those who hold the second-highest office of the Canadian state should be above board, and ideally above reproach. An opposition party is now calling for an independent investigation, however, so we are well past that.
As the Crown’s first minister, the Prime Minister is constitutionally responsible and accountable for the actions and affairs of the Governor-General. He advises the Queen on the appointment of her Canadian representative and, if necessary, he can request that the Sovereign dismiss and replace the Governor-General. Were the Governor-General in a constitutional confrontation with the Prime Minister, the Queen may have the discretion to refuse her first minister’s advice. But this is not the case here. In this instance, the Queen would be bound to accept. And we can be sure that Buckingham Palace is keeping Her Majesty abreast of the situation.
Yet advising the Queen to dismiss the Governor-General is, and should be, the Prime Minister’s last option. Instead, he and the Privy Council Office should be talking with Rideau Hall about what can be done to rectify matters and allow a contrite Ms. Payette to see through the customary five years of her appointment, until 2022.
If the situation isn’t already untenable, however, new allegations will surely make it so. In the context of a minority parliament, in particular, where the Governor-General’s discretionary authority can be decisive, there should be no questions or concerns about her judgment. If the Prime Minister’s Office sees that resignation is probably unavoidable, it should come to that decision sooner rather than later, and certainly before any possible votes of no confidence, requests to dissolve the legislature, or perhaps another minority parliament. Above all, if she becomes the targets of sustained partisan critiques, the Prime Minister should gently suggest that Ms. Payette “spend more time with her family.”
If all else fails, though, Mr. Trudeau may have to make a call to Her Majesty about Her Excellency.
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