Payette has jeopardized an institution that is bigger than her


One of Julie Payette’s most impressive attributes, when she was named Canada’s governor general in 2017, was that she had been to space.  Twice.  Just a few years later, most people would be happier if she were still there.

By any measure, Payette is accomplished and brilliant.  She’s a well-educated polyglot who, I repeat, has been to space.  Twice.  Nevertheless, she proved brash, impossible to work with, and uninterested in the pomp and ceremony of a job that exists almost exclusively for pomp and ceremony.

A Globe and Mail op-ed summed up the gig rather well, I thought.

“It comes with no real power, but real responsibility.  It’s all about service and deference,” the editorial board wrote.  “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.”

Payette resigned last week after an independent review found her office to be a toxic workplace replete with rampant harassment.  This echoes several stories of current and former staffers that have been reported in multiple mainstream media outlets in the past couple of years.  Payette allegedly mocked and belittled staff, resisted her security team’s efforts to protect her, and shied away from the public accountability her (former) role demanded.  To add insult to injury, she racked up sizeable expenses to renovate Rideau Hall, which she never moved into.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deserves some of the blame for this, given he unilaterally recommended Payette’s appointment, ignoring the independent committee that existed to identify and propose vice-regal candidates.  Previous reports indicate Payette was actually gunning for an ambassadorship, but Trudeau thought she would be a good fit to stand-in for Canada’s head of state.

I lauded the decision when she was announced.  Her curriculum vitae showed she was tremendously qualified, though I started to have doubts about her suitability when one of her first public appearances ended up devolving into a rebuke of people of faith.  Not the sort of rhetoric one wants from a ceremonial figurehead.

While the Conservatives are justifiably making Payette’s failure as governor general a political failure for Trudeau, there’s a greater loss for Canadians here.  The governor general’s role is significant because it is meant to be above controversy, just as the Crown is.  By making herself the story, Payette has undermined an institution that barely has legitimacy in the eyes of many of the Canadians it governs.

The monarchy is of dwindling relevance to Her Majesty’s Canadian subjects, many of whom, I suspect, only tolerate the system because it doesn’t become a nuisance with any regularity.  This is why I predict there will be numerous discussions of a Canadian republic once Charles is the king, a destiny that makes me wish Queen Elizabeth II were blessed with immortality.

Past governors-general have understood the role and operated within the confines of it.  Payette, on the other hand, was a unifying figure only in the sense that she managed to unite everyone against her.

It isn’t inconceivable that this antipathy will extend to the role itself, especially with the understanding that Payette is set to receive an annual lifetime pension of just under $150,000, not to mention office and staffing expenses which, if she spends like Adrienne Clarkson, could cost taxpayers an additional $100,000 each year.  Payette is just 57, so 30 years of this works out to roughly $7.5 million.

While the job is in desperate need of reform, it still serves an important role in Canada, a country with an unelected head of state in Her Majesty the Queen.  Ideally, a ceremonial figure to preside over honours, awards and state functions allows for these sorts of events to be depoliticized.  It also assures a continuity in government that puts America’s much-vaunted, months-long “peaceful transfer of power” to shame.

Ironically, Canada finds itself without a governor general at a time in which the role’s very real authority could be required: minority governments are inherently unstable, and it’s ultimately the governor general who assesses whether a government can command the confidence the House of Commons, or whether Canadians will be heading to the polls.

Payette has jeopardized an institution that is bigger than her, and one in which she clearly never deserved to play such a significant role.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

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