In the controversy over Julie Payette’s fraught first year as governor-general, much has been made of what a tough job she has.
So many hands to shake; all those twee costumes and boring ceremonies; not being able to say what you think. Sure, the perks are nice, the argument goes, but what about the tradeoffs? The phrase “gilded cage” gets thrown around.
That’s certainly one way to make sense of Ms. Payette’s puzzling performance in the past 12 months as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Her missteps have lead to a series of articles in this newspaper and others depicting a GG struggling to fulfill some of her most basic duties.
Medals to exemplary volunteers have been sent in the mail, rather than pinned on the worthy’s chest. Charities like St. John Ambulance have been left hanging as Rideau Hall conducts a prolonged “review” of vice-regal patronage. Manitoba has missed its usual visit from the Queen’s representative in Canada. Ms. Payette reportedly expressed frustration at having to shuffle her schedule to accommodate the signing of a government bill.
The picture that emerges from these stories is of a governor-general temperamentally ill-suited to the job.
The GG must be capable of enormous deference, not only to the government whose advice she acts on but also to convention and protocol. Ms. Payette, a proud engineer and former astronaut, is not one to defer.
The governor-general is also by definition a highly public person, subject to intense scrutiny, whereas Ms. Payette is jealous of her privacy and resents intrusions into it.
Rideau Hall is, furthermore, a hidebound place that puts a premium on tradition. Ms. Payette’s scientific background valorizes reason and new frontiers, rather than the way things have been done in the past.
It could be said that this personality mismatch speaks well of Ms. Payette – that she’s too smart and independent for such a fusty post. But past GGs have hardly been mannequins. Her immediate predecessor, David Johnston, was a brilliant legal scholar and university administrator before becoming governor-general, and he excelled in the role.
Some of the blame for Ms. Payette’s struggles could also be said to lie with the Prime Minister, who should have known his pick would bristle at the strictures of the position, and whose government could have vetted her more carefully.
It’s also true that some of the criticism directed at Ms. Payette has been griping from nostalgics and sticklers. Her informal style isn’t the problem, though.
In fact, it’s refreshing. She surprised the Senate by delivering her installation speech without notes and occasionally off the cuff. It was a hit.
But the truth is, for all the cards stacked against her, a share of the blame for the problems at Rideau Hall surely lies with Ms. Payette herself.
She knew what she was signing up for, after all. A Canadian in her fifties has seen governors-general preside over countless galas and deliver precious few policy speeches. If the extent of the job’s ceremonial freight came as a shock all the same, it has helped no one to let it show.
Nor should we forget that, for all its frustrations, the governor-generalship is the highest office in Canada, and a huge honour. It comes with a six-figure salary and pension, a mansion and vast estate, and lots of other perquisites.
Most importantly, the job contains vast potential to do good. Pick a cause – virtually any cause: You can rocket-boost its profile and help it raise millions. For Ed Schreyer it was the environment, for Adrienne Clarkson it was the North, for Michaëlle Jean it was violence against women, for Roland Michener it was sport and fitness, for Georges Vanier it was bilingualism.
For Ms. Payette it might have been, and could still be, the promotion of science – though she came close to poisoning the well on that subject with a speech last year that mocked believers in astrology and creationism.
Ms. Payette can still redeem herself. She is brilliant and public-spirited. Her selection was rightly lauded at the time. And she herself seems to be aware of her shortcomings. In a video she released this week to mark her first year in office, she said, “There is still a lot to do. Things to improve. People to see.”
She has the makings of a great governor-general. It’s time for her to decide if that’s what she wants to be.