Politics

Andrew Coyne: It’s not the governor general’s fault, the Liberals are to blame

It all rather has the sense of a dam having burst. In recent
days a spate of stories has appeared in the nation’s media,
notably the National Post’s weekend magnum
opus, describing the many ways in which the current
Governor General of Canada, Julie Payette, is said to be
failing to do her job.

Official Ottawa has been privately seething for months with
tales of her high-handed style and selective approach to her
duties. Now they are all out in the open: of the sluggish pace
of her public appearances; of the charities and non-profits
left in limbo by her demands for an unspecified “review” of
their patronage; claims of her contempt for either the dictates
of convention or the limits of her role, including attempts to
intrude in areas a governor general really should not intrude
into, from government policy to the honours system; claims that
she initially refused to participate in a ceremony giving royal
assent to a government bill because it meant a change in her
schedule.

Perhaps you are reading this thinking: well, so what? So she
doesn’t like making small talk at official functions — who
does? So she pushes back when decisions are pressed upon her —
who wants to be just a rubber stamp? So she blows off some
dusty old conventions — like a breath of fresh air, you mean?
And all of this would be perfectly reasonable, admirable even,
in any office but that of Governor General of Canada.

The job description of a governor general would read something
like: must like crowds and parties; must have a deep respect
for custom, tradition and convention, together with a profound
understanding of the constitutional role of the Crown in our
Parliamentary system; must take instruction well.

The last is perhaps the most important. Doing what you are told
is not just an incidental part of a governor general’s
vocation: it is at the very core of it. A modern constitutional
monarch has many roles, but among them is to be a living symbol
of the taming of the Crown, from all-powerful autocrat to
deferential servant of democracy. You are given the Speech from
the Throne to read, you bloody well read it as written.

So among the qualities desirable in a governor general, as the
Queen’s representative in Canada, a certain humility would be
foremost. In this, as in other respects, Payette would seem
peculiarly unsuited for the position she now holds, whatever
her other accomplishments in life. She gives every appearance
of believing that it is she who ennobles the office, rather
than the other way around.

Yes but: does the office itself matter? This will be the other
common response. Isn’t this a lot of fuss over nothing? Isn’t
the whole monarchy thing just a preposterous game of dress-up,
the governor general an embarrassing colonial relic?

There isn’t space here to rehearse the broader case for the
Crown: its foundational role in our system of laws and
government; the virtues, so evident in light of events south of
the border, of separating the head of state and the head of
government, that the temporary occupants of elected office
might be discouraged from getting above themselves; the
humanizing symbolism of placing at the apex of our society, not
some dry abstraction or totalizing idea, but a family, like any
other.

The governor general’s office said Friday Payette is committed
to serving Canadians and that she has fulfilled her duties. The
criticisms of her are “either inaccurate or based on incomplete
information.”

Governor
General Julie Payette visits tornado-damaged communities on Sept.
24, 2018 with Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.
Sean Kilpatrick/The
Canadian Press

For now I would simply say: tell it to the people of Humboldt,
Sask., who will not receive a visit from the governor general
until next month, six months after the highway accident that
nearly wiped out their local hockey team. One function of the
Crown, classically, is as the “fount of honour.” That’s true in
the literal sense, that official honours and titles are awarded
in its name. But it is also true in a more figurative sense.
Where the Queen turns her attention, she turns the attention of
the public. Her role, like that of her representatives, is to
focus and direct the feelings of the entire nation.

When the governor general shows up in a place like Humboldt,
with all of the attendant publicity, she does not represent
only herself or her office or even the Queen: she represents
all of us, and the honour and recognition and love she brings
to the people of Humboldt in such times concentrates that of 37
million Canadians. Mostly it says, we are paying
attention
— we are aware of your grief, and it matters to
us, because you matter to us. As the failure of the governor
general to show up can only convey the opposite.

But the fault for this fiasco does not lie with Payette, who is
who she is, but with the government that saw fit to appoint
her. The appointment is in many ways typical of the Trudeau
Liberals, in its devotion to style over substance, to ticking
identity boxes — a woman, young, francophone, etc. — over
fitness for the job. (“She is perfectly aligned with the image
we want to project,” a senior Liberal sighed contentedly at the
time.)

Not only did the Prime Minister’s Office fail to consult the
experts on the previous government’s Advisory Committee on
Vice-Regal Appointments, but it also ignored the advice of its
own Privy Council. Its vetting process — entrusted to the
renowned Liberal Research Bureau — somehow failed to unearth
such gems from her past as a charge of assaulting her
ex-husband: expunged, certainly, but surely relevant in
considering her suitability for the highest office in the land.

For in the end the choice of governor general is an expression
of what we value as a society. The appointee, after all, is
required not only to represent the nation but to unify it in
times of crisis — the job demands, on occasion, nothing less
than choosing a government. Were we a serious country, we would
reserve such a position to persons of enormous gravitas: men
and women of immense moral standing in the community, who had
consistently demonstrated superior integrity and judgment in
positions of great responsibility, figures of universal respect
and even reverence.

But as we are a deeply unserious country, we deny that gravitas
matters, or that some could be in greater possession of it than
others. The consequences confront us.

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