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opinion

Steve Paikin, TVOntario's astute interviewer, had Governor-General David Johnston on his show the other night. Mr. Johnston was talking about his book, The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation, wherein he extols the country's virtues; its inclusivity, civility, fairness, respect for democracy and the like.

It's an inspiring book from a man of moral altitude. But the timing of its release could have been a tad more fortuitous. In the same week, the judge in the Mike Duffy trial brought down a ruling describing the government with which Mr. Johnston served as acting in a way that blatantly contradicted his stated ideals.

"Mind-boggling and shocking" the judge wrote of the comportment of the office of then-prime minister Stephen Harper. "Unacceptable" in a "democratic society."

The judge's portrait – hello Harperland – was more affirmation of what many have been saying for years about the way these people operated. It was telling that hardly a Conservative could be found to come to the microphone to defend their former ruler against the charges.

Mr. Johnston witnessed much of the abuse of power over the years, abuses that extended far beyond the Senate expenses scandal. Of special concern to him is the well-being of the institutions of government. As Donald Savoie, an authority on these matters, has noted, they were treated with disrespect.

What was Mr. Johnston to do? Mostly he smiled through it all. It's what governors-general do. It's their job. He smiled as if all was hunky-dory, as if there was no moral corruption to see.

With his line of questioning which was not specifically on the Duffy matter, Mr. Paikin seemed to be well aware of how exasperating this must have been for a man of Mr. Johnston's character. He pertinently noted that Mr. Johnston's daughters described him in the book as a progressive. "Have your daughters outed you?" The G-G avoided a direct answer. But since he allowed the description to appear, he must have been comfortable with it.

Interviews with governors-general are often fawning. Not this one. Mr. Paikin put up photos of how joyous the G-G looked at the swearing-in of Justin Trudeau, adding that he couldn't recall him looking so pleased in the company of Mr. Harper. Mr. Johnston circumlocuted again and Mr. Paikin remarked on his diversionary capacities. His good-natured way of putting the touchy questions prevented things from getting testy.

The Governor-General is supposed to be impartial and Mr. Johnston has been so. He's performed admirably in the post. Perhaps part of his thinking while bringing out his book at this time was to distance himself from the Harper breed and creed.

While the G-G can't offer any political views publicly, he does meet with the Prime Minister periodically for discussion. Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson told me last week that she was very frank during her meetings with then-prime minister Paul Martin.

Did Mr. Johnston challenge Mr. Harper privately on matters pertaining to parliamentary democracy or other questions? It doesn't seem likely. Mr. Harper last year chose to extend his term. Had there been much disagreement between the two, it's doubtful it would have happened.

More recently, however, Mr. Johnston did express concern over political exploitation of issues such as the niqab and refugees. CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge was persistent in an interview in raising this with him. The G-G replied that he continued to worry about initiatives that would "cause us to be small-minded" and lose our sense of inclusiveness, fairness and equality of opportunity.

Even this statement prompted criticism from some, including Conservative Senator Linda Frum, who suggested the G-G had overstepped his bounds. When it comes to overstepping bounds, she might have been better advised to address the conduct of her party in power.

Mr. Johnston, questioned by Mr. Paikin about the criticism, might well have liked to make that point. He couldn't of course. When you're Governor-General, you're supposed to paste on a smile, no matter what you're looking at.