Exit Julie Payette, in the hopes that her successor will be better



Governor General Julie Payette and her secretary, Assunta Di Lorenzo, resigned on Thursday following the release of the report into allegations of harassment at Rideau Hall, which has been described by those who’ve seen it as “scathing.”  That Payette went out as gracefully as possible is a relief in that we didn’t wind up in a constitutional crisis or need to get the Queen involved, but Wells’ First Rule prevailed.  There are plenty of next steps to consider, particularly in how to choose her successor, and this time it will be difficult, if not impossible, for prime minister Justin Trudeau to continue with the same black-box process that he employs with all of his vice-regal appointments.

First things first – there is no disruption in the continuity of government because the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Richard Wagner, automatically assumes the role of Administrator in the absence of a Governor General, as outlined in the Letters Patent.  This is important because it ensures that government doesn’t grind to a halt – after all, the prime minister has very limited powers on his own that don’t require the signature of the GG, whether it’s with Orders in Council, appointments, or regulations.  The provinces don’t have this luxury, as we discovered in the summer of 2019 when two lieutenant governors died in office, and their governments stalled.  Normally the Secretary to the GG also has several powers of a deputy GG, but with Di Lorenzo resigning along with Payette, this leaves a second vacancy that must also be filled – but likely more quickly.

As for Payette’s departure, it sounds like she had a meeting with Trudeau on Wednesday night after seeing the report, and it seems that she was led to the conclusion that there was one honourable way out, but it wasn’t necessarily a requested resignation.  Nevertheless, her statement announcing her resignation was entirely in the passive voice and had no admission of culpability, though one suspects that this may have been either to limit liability in possible lawsuits by former staff, or that this was agreed-upon language with the government that was negotiated to give her as graceful an exit as possible (which is probably why the government is also not talking about culpability or outright admission of wrongdoing).  It has also been remarked upon publicly that her line that “We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better” was possibly a dig at Trudeau, as he used similar language when groping allegations were levelled against him.

The way this resignation has happened should remind us of how we got here.  Trudeau did away with the vice-regal appointments committee that his predecessor left him, despite the fact that it was acclaimed and worked extremely well – and yet he replicated its functions for new senate appointments and Supreme Court of Canada justices.  When it came time to make his first vice-regal appointment, he went with Judy Foote as the new lieutenant governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, despite the fact that she was less than six months out of Cabinet, but the prevailing theory is that Trudeau felt he owed her one after she quit Cabinet when he sided with Jody Wilson-Raybould on opposing the genetic privacy bill (which the Supreme Court later upheld, incidentally).

The very first warning sign that Payette was unsuitable was when she named her friend Di Lorenzo as her secretary – the kind of appointment that had not been seen in decades. Normally a senior civil servant takes the role because it is essentially a deputy ministerial position, and requires knowledge of government operations and the Crown, on top of a host of other duties.  With the increasing size of Rideau Hall’s office to nearly 150 employees, and the fact that the secretary can act as a deputy GG – including giving royal assent to certain bills in the absence of the GG – it is an awful lot of power to turn over to a personal friend rather than a senior civil servant who can have continuity across more than one GG’s term.  And because Di Lorenzo didn’t have government knowledge, the government was forced to create an Associate Secretary position to put a senior civil servant into.

The good thing about this arrangement is that we can likely replace Di Lorenzo with her Associate as a full-time secretary in short order, which will prove better leadership in Rideau Hall among the staff, and there can be a deputy GG in place to take care of some of the functions that we don’t want to load onto Justice Wagner, because he still has his own job to do.  But that’s the easy part.  Then comes replacing Payette herself.

The best thing that Trudeau should do is something he should have done months ago, which is to reinstate the vice-regal appointments commission, with the Canadian Secretary to the Queen at the head of it.  I am pretty confident that the Canadian Secretary has already started a quiet search for a potential short-list to present to the prime minister, and likely started once the writing was on the wall with Payette, but it still leaves a lot of questions.

As with anything this government does, they go big on the symbolism and the good intentions, and then balls up the implementation because they don’t like to sweat the details, but guess what – when you’re in government, the details matter.  You can’t keep coasting by on meaning well and hoping the ends justify the means, which is their Achilles’ heel.  They wanted Payette because she was an accomplished woman in STEM and an astronaut, but they didn’t think to do the proper vetting, or be sure that she had the temperament for a role heavy on ceremony and patronage.  We can hope that they won’t make the same mistake twice because they want to tick all of the right representation boxes, but with this government, that’s always a possibility.  Either way, Trudeau gets to wear Payette’s appointment, and he needs to beware that when it comes to picking her replacement.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Dale Smith. @journo_dale

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Click here for more political news headlines.


Share this article