It’s a uniquely Canadian job. On the org chart, the governor-general appears to be the country’s second-most important position, above the prime minister. You can even think of it as top job in the land, since the actual No. 1 job belongs to someone who doesn’t live here, and never will.
The job comes with an estate, a staff and the closest thing this country has to a palace. The PM has a smaller and currently uninhabitable home across the street, so he’s squatting in a cottage on the governor-general’s grounds. Like he’s the help.
In theory, a governor-general is in charge of everything, from commanding the armed forces to deciding which bills become law. In practice, however, it’s a profoundly humbling job.
And it’s supposed to be. It comes with no real power, but real responsibility. It’s all about service and deference.
The duties involve being often seen but rarely heard, and when heard – as when delivering a Speech from the Throne – speaking somebody else’s words, while sitting on someone else’s throne. And never, ever, doing anything controversial or political.
And the governor-general doesn’t even get to be a royal, or a head of state. She’s merely a viceregal stand-in for the real Regina, and deputy head of state for the actual head of state. It’s like being a substitute teacher, forever. Or having the word “acting” in your job title, forever.
There aren’t many people who would want such a job. And as the Julie Payette fiasco shows, there are even fewer who should be considered for it.
Yet the job is essential to Canada’s political system. The system works, and its stability, along with the humility it imposes upon politicians and pseudo-royals alike, are profoundly Canadian.
Governors-general – and the lieutenant-governors in each province – are a cornerstone of our system of government, and the constitutional machine can’t work without them. Not unless you want to replace the Crown with something such as an elected and empowered head of state – a.k.a., a politician. (Just ask Americans what it was like to spend four years with a photograph of head-of-state Donald Trump on the wall of every government office.)
Among the lesser accusations against Ms. Payette is that, since her appointment in 2017, she ignored many requests for public appearances, and declined to be a patron of long-patronized charitable and other organizations.
A lot of people think that’s what the governor-general is for; a kind of taxpayer-financed head of the United Way.
Yes, ribbon cutting, handshaking and charity-dinner attendance have evolved into a central part of the duties, as they are for the Queen. As such, it would not be great for the office if a governor-general were to, say, devote most of their time in Rideau Hall to Netflix-and-chill.
But it wouldn’t really be a problem for the constitutional order, because ribbons, handshakes and after-dinner remarks aren’t the real job.
The real job is acting as the head of state, which mostly means rubber-stamping things done by elected officials. However, every once in a while, a PM or premier will ask a governor-general or lieutenant-governor to prorogue the legislature, or call an election, or decide who will form government. That’s usually a rubber stamp kind of call, since it’s normally clear who won an election or who lost a confidence vote.
But every once in a while, the viceregal representative has to put away the rubber stamp and be a judge, deciding such things as who deserves first crack at trying to form government. It’s happened many times in Canadian history.
Governments have an insatiable desire to put their brand on everything, including the governor-general. Appointments turn into political marketing opportunities, with race, gender, region and so much more plugged into the equation.
And it’s fine to take those into account. But under it all, there’s a real and vital job to be done. It requires a big brain and lived experience, but also the self-control to park one’s ego, for the good of the country.
The appointment of Ms. Payette is what happens when government turns everything into a branding exercise. To find her replacement, the Trudeau government should look to an arms-length commission, consult with the other parties and park its ego. For the good of the country.
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