The country needs a new governor-general. Here’s a checklist for the Trudeau government, to assist it in avoiding another Julie Payette fiasco.
It’s a job, not an honour: Appointing a governor-general isn’t the same as naming someone to the Order of Canada. The latter involves some letters after your name, which no one will understand, along with a lapel pin, which no one will recognize. The former is an actual job.
It’s also a job that can be boring and tedious. It’s suited to someone who, for the sake of the greater good, can keep their mouth and their ego in check. The person has to be entirely apolitical, which means making frequent public appearances while saying nothing in the least bit controversial.
Someone who has an agenda cannot be governor-general. And why not? Because of democracy.
The Canadian system of responsible government rests on the principle that the Crown doesn’t get involved in politics. The people, and the people’s elected representatives, decide how the country will be run.
Got strong opinions to share with the world? Wonderful. Stand for elected office, write an op-ed, start a blog, get tweeting or become a social-media influencer. But a viceregal representative must be the opposite of an influencer.
A governor-general has to have a strong sense of deference. But the tradition the viceregal representative is deferring to is the supremacy of Parliament. And the people he or she is deferring to are Canadians. What’s being respected is the primacy of democracy over monarchy.
However, there are times when a governor-general must get involved in politics. It doesn’t happen often, but the person occupying the office has to be equipped for it.
The essential job of a governor-general or a provincial lieutenant-governor, which many are never called on to perform, is to officiate rare but potentially dangerous disputes over who has the democratic legitimacy to govern. The viceregal representative is like the National Hockey League’s remote video review unit, which sometimes has to decide if a goal is a goal – except a governor-general or lieutenant-governor only steps in to resolve a dispute in a Game 7 overtime.
It happened in British Columbia after the 2017 election, when then lieutenant-governor Judith Guichon declined then-premier Christy Clark’s request to dissolve the legislature and hold another election, and instead invited the New Democratic Party’s John Horgan to form a government. It was the right call, and one only Ms. Guichon had the authority to make.
Turn to an independent committee: The Harper government in 2010 created an ad hoc and then in 2012 permanent Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments. It did so despite holding a majority. Each time there was a federal or provincial vacancy, it asked a group of independent people, who understood and respected the institution, to do due diligence and provide a short list of names.
The system worked. It gave the country a number of steady, uncontroversial and boring – we mean that as the highest compliment – viceregal representatives, including former governor-general David Johnston, an academic and long-time university president, and Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former teacher and bureaucrat.
The Trudeau government has to revive this committee. It also has to consult with the other federal parties. Being a minority government makes that all the more important.
Avoid celebrities: Governments have an irresistible urge to treat all announcements as branding opportunities. Everything becomes campaign strategy; the Trudeau government is second to none in this tendency. As such, a celebrity such as Ms. Payette looked like a wonderful choice.
And on paper, she was: an educated, accomplished and perfectly bilingual astronaut. However, had the Trudeau government properly vetted her – and had it relied on the advisory committee – it would have quickly learned that she wasn’t right for this unique role.
Don’t consider anyone younger than 65: Are we being ageist? Not exactly. The problem isn’t how old the person is coming in to the job, but rather what stage of life they’ll be at when they exit.
A governor-general has to be insulated from political influence, and one way of doing that is to make sure, when they retire, they aren’t looking for their next job. The position should not be one more step on a career ladder. It should be the last rung.
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