Canada’s Conundrum: What’s a Governor General For?

, , Comments Off on Canada’s Conundrum: What’s a Governor General For?

The recent ignominious departure of Julie Payette as Canada’s Governor General has created a firestorm of controversy but, sadly, no consensus on the way forward.

Everyone agrees the next appointment needs to be made using a different process with more consultation. But then the wheels fall off the consensus. Some argue Canada’s next GG should be of indigenous origin. Others argue for popular celebrities such as Wayne Gretzky, Shania Twain or Rick Hansen. Still others urge a return to less popular or well-known, but far more expert, choices, such as former Governor General David Johnson, a university administrator and legal scholar whom fewer than 1 in 10 Canadians could name.

There is a reason why these suggestions about who should fill the post vary so wildly. They are based on two quite different assumptions about the role itself.  A clear divide has emerged between those who see the post as primarily symbolic, and hence favour representational concerns above all else, and those who focus on the limited but real constitutional role and would prefer to see someone with relevant expertise and a steady hand at the wheel in the event of constitutional crises.

A survey of past incumbents in Canada clearly shows the roots of the post’s current identity crisis. To begin with, for nearly one hundred years, from 1867 until 1952, Canadian Governors-General were not Canadians at all, but British aristocrats and diplomats directly appointed by the British monarch. It was not until the 18th incumbent, Vincent Massey, that a Canadian occupied the post, and at the recommendation of a Canadian prime minister. The implications of this change to the appointments process are significant. Julie Payette may be the 29th Governor General of Canada but she is only the 12th Canadian to be selected to occupy the post. Hardly the lengthy record of experience one might expect.

However a far more important change took place with the appointment of well-known journalist Adrienne Clarkson as the 26th Governor General in 1999. Until then, Canadian prime ministers had consistently selected former politicians and diplomats to fill the post, all of whom had a good understanding of the political process and the vice-regal role, and all of whom were personally well-known to the prime minister. Some, such as Massey and Michener, were reasonably well-known to the broader public due to previous military or other roles, but many were not. And while the first francophone (Jules Leger) and female (Jeanne Sauve) governors general were appointed during this time period, they were largely unknown to the public and their selection was on the strength of their previous roles as politicians, cabinet ministers, Speakers of the House of Commons and familiar colleague of the prime minister of the day.

It is also noteworthy that several of these appointments were cross-partisan. Progressive Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker proposed Vincent Massey although he was a Liberal, Lester Pearson chose Roland Michener although he was a former Conservative politician, and Pierre Trudeau seleted the former NDP premier of Manitoba, Ed Schreyer. At the same time, both Schreyer and Raymon Hnatyshyn’s appointments expanded the regional representation of incumbents. Previously all but one (Massey) had come from Ontario or Quebec, and these appointments now demonstrated the inclusion of western Canada, just as Trudeau’s appointment of former cabinet minister Romeo Leblanc provided for the first Acadian and Atlantic Canadian incumbent.

Still, representation and diversity took a back seat to political experience until 1999. In addition, fluency in both of Canada’s official languages was considered essential, and the political background of previous incumbents all but guaranteed this would be the case. (Schreyer, interestingly, was also an ardent proponent of bilingualism during his time at Rideau Hall.) 

With the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson in 1999, Canadians were given a very different vision of a Governor General. She was a former broadcast journalist, skilled in communications and a household name, and she represented the new Canada as the daughter of immigrants and a visible minority. She was also fluently bilingual. However she had no political background or legal training. Over her time in the post she greatly enhanced the visibility and popularity of the role, but she did not face any constitutional or other political crisis where her lack of relevant expertise might have been an issue.  Her successor, Michaelle Jean, was an appointment in much the same mould. A popular choice, she too added to the visibility of the role, but unlike Clarkson she did face such a challenge with the prorogation crisis of 2006. Still, she was able to call on the advice of several constitutional experts before she ultimately took the decision to allow prime minister Harper to prorogue, although that decision remains controversial.

It was perhaps one of the reasons why Mr Harper then returned to the old model with his appointment of the bland but competent Johnston, whose time in office passed almost unnoticed by the majority of Canadians. By contrast it was to restore the new representational vision of the post that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a strong advocate for diversity and enhanced representation in public office, selected Julie Payette. That representational vision, it should be noted, was quickly becoming the expected norm, seen by many as a sort of modern update on an old anachronistic practice. Certainly Payette’s appointment was greeted with widespread and enthusiastic approval by the opposition political parties, the media, and various interest groups including the leadership of indigenous organizations.[i]  

In the end, however, it was not her lack of relevant political knowledge that brought about her downfall but her personality, temperament and managerial style, something which would have been less likely to be overlooked had she been known personally to the prime minister and various officials involved in her selection process. Moreover, had she had any relevant political experience or a better understanding of the role she would be expected to play, she might well have recognized on her own that the post was not a good fit. It was clear from the beginning that she was not comfortable with many of the trappings and expectations that accompanied the role, and it has been reported that she considered resigning more than a year before the toxic workplace accusations surfaced. [ii]        

What does this experience tell us? First, as has been repeatedly emphasized since Payette’s departure, a better vetting process must be put in place and consultation with the opposition, particularly in a minority parliament, would seem to be essential. In addition minimum qualifications, such as fluency in both official languages, must be underlined.   

But this will not be sufficient to overcome some of the problems this debacle has revealed. To begin with, the representation vs expertise and experience divide must be clearly spelled out, debated and resolved, since there is little likelihood that any one candidate will emerge that can fill both sets of requirements.  lf the post is to continue to be primarily a representative/popular one, then significant effort must be devoted to a pre-appointment briefing process for potential candidates to avoid further surprises. If it is to be primarily an expert/political one, parameters regarding partisan background and experience must be laid out and explained, noting that they represent a return to past practice rather than a radical departure. Last but hardly least, the extraordinary decision to allow Payette as the incoming appointee to select her own Secretary, replacing the traditional senior public servant appointed to that post by the government, must not be repeated. As numerous reports have demonstrated, the role of Payette’s long time friend Assunta di Laurenzo, (an accomplished businesswoman and corporate lawyer with no relevant political or government experience) was a recipe for disaster and a classic example of the blind leading the blind. [iii]     

Unfortunately we cannot look elsewhere for clues on how to choose the Queen’s representative. For one thing there are not many of these positions left in former Commonwealth countries. India and South Africa chose to establish republican systems. (No queen, no need for a governor general to represent her.) Apart from Britain’s many former island colonies dotted across the Caribbean, only Australia and New Zealand have comparable posts, and the criteria by which they choose their incumbents offers no help for Canadian observers… In Australia, (and Jamaica, for that matter), there is a history of appointing religious office holders, a scenario which is surely a non-starter in Canada and one which backfired spectacularly in Australia in 2003 when Governor General Peter Hollingworth, the former Anglican Bishop of Brisbane, was obliged to resign from his vice-regal post over a sexual abuse scandal in the church during his time as its leader. (In Jamaica, meanwhile, the official head of the Seventh Day Adventist Church is the latest vice-regal appointee, a scenario which seems to suit all concerned.)

At the end of the day the position of Governor General has little real power but that vestige of power is potentially significant. At the same time, in a vast and diverse country such as Canada the potency of symbolism in furthering national unity cannot be dismissed. Hopefully greater attention to the selection process will eliminate future embarrassments and serve to take full advantage of the post’s potential.