The whole point of a Governor-General is so the Canadian government has someone that the Prime Minister has to answer to, and not the other way around.
So the clamour for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fire Governor-General Julie Payette – or have her fired – creates the kind of no-win conundrum that he can only really fix with a time machine.
Mr. Trudeau must wish he could travel back to 2017, before Ms. Payette was appointed, to ask her a few more questions.
It’s not so easy now. The thing about the viceregal role is that even governors-general and prime ministers are stuck with it. Governors-general have to fit themselves into the role. When they don’t, the PM doesn’t have a lot of options, except bad ones.
That’s why Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland dodged when she was asked last week if the government still had confidence in the Governor-General.
A minister can’t express a lack of confidence in the Governor-General, but no government can act like it’s okay with the reports of Ms. Payette’s behaviour. One thing Canadians don’t seem to accept in viceregal office is an exaggerated sense of entitlement.
She is accused of creating a toxic workplace, of berating and humiliating employees, and most recently she was reported to have spent $250,000 on unused renovation designs for Rideau Hall, including plans for a private staircase to keep her away from prying eyes. That’s even though Ms. Payette hasn’t moved into the official residence.
By itself, that’s an embarrassment for Mr. Trudeau, who recommended Ms. Payette’s appointment three years ago. At the time, his advisers believed he had landed a coup. She’s a former astronaut who broke through a glass ceiling, inspired kids and is also an accomplished soprano. What more could they ask?
In retrospect, Mr. Trudeau and his aides are probably wishing they had inquired a little more deeply. “How do you feel about public events?” might have been one question. Or, “What do you think of living at Rideau Hall?” Perhaps a few queries about what she imagined the job would be like. Maybe checking with former co-workers and employees to see if she featured in their nightmares.
But there’s no simple fix now.
In theory, the PM could press Ms. Payette to resign, or even ask the Queen to dismiss her – a request that would almost certainly be accepted. But he shouldn’t.
Ms. Payette is accused of being a bad boss, of mistreating employees, of wasteful budgeting and of being a bad Governor-General. But so far, there hasn’t been evidence of the kind of cause for dismissal required to remove a judge. In our system, we don’t want a prime minister firing a governor-general, or even pressing one to go, unless they’ve done something truly egregious.
The monarch, represented in Canada by the Governor-General, doesn’t have a lot of practical powers, but they still represent an important feature of our system: the limit on the power of the prime minister and his government.
In 2009, when then-prime minister Stephen Harper asked for a brief prorogation of Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote, Governor-General Michaëlle Jean accepted – but she drew out the meeting and set conditions, to make it clear that a prime minister could only go so far. And when a prime minister exceeds the bounds, they can be dismissed.
Those kinds of powers are rarely used, though they matter more during minority Parliaments, when an arbiter of constitutional convention is sometimes needed. We can’t have prime ministers thinking they can force out that arbiter for anything less than extreme cause.
That doesn’t mean the government has no responsibility. It, not Ms. Payette, is the employer of Rideau Hall staff. It has to protect their workplace. The person running that workplace is the Secretary to the Governor-General, and, though it is usually a job for a veteran civil servant, Ms. Payette apparently arranged the appointment of a friend, Assunta Di Lorenzo, who is also reported to have berated employees at Rideau Hall. The government can replace her and send in a veteran official to run the office. Mr. Trudeau can have informal talks with Ms. Payette about the importance of her role.
Beyond that, Mr. Trudeau’s options are limited. And he is learning the time to deal with a governor-general’s weaknesses is before they are appointed.
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