When the law is an ass, it should be amended.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on February 1, 2021.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to move quickly to deny any pension or remuneration to the disgraced former governor general of Canada.
Notwithstanding government claims that the law requires payment, when the law is an ass, it should be amended.
When the initial post-retirement pension was introduced, no one foresaw the removal of an office-holder for malfeasance or bullying. However, given the situation that we are facing with the departure of former astronaut Julie Payette, all bets are off.
If there is one thing I know from politics, it is this kind of situation that rubs people the wrong way.
Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, with people losing their jobs and somehow, the nation’s titular head of state gets away with harassing employees. The vast majority of people interviewed for the independent report prepared for the Privy Council Office spoke of a “toxic” or “poisoned” work environment.
The report was heavily redacted but now that the governor general has stepped down, there will be further interest in how she ended up in the job in the first place.
There were certainly enough backstories to ensure that the prime minister should not have named her in the first place.
Two previous Payette leave-takings from high-profile positions were not exactly grounds for a glowing recommendation.
Trudeau’s appointments’ secretary Hillary Leftick should have rung an early warning bell to stop the government from naming Payette.
It is one thing to be impressed by her credentials: a multilingual former astronaut who spoke both official languages with ease and several others as well seemed to be perfect.
But the deeper dive into her background, both private and public, should have set off enough warning bells to stop the appointment. Allegations of spousal abuse, a previous, albeit, exonerated car accident that resulted in a death, two high-profile jobs where she left in a hurry, were just some of the warning signs.
But they were ignored because, on the surface, she seemed like an ideal choice.
That genie could not be put back into the bottle, but the prime minister needs to acknowledge that a mistake was made, and he also needs to cut off all future funding to the abuser.
The opposition parties would be quite happy to join in an all-party amendment to current law, to ensure that Payette receives neither a pension, nor a stipend for future travel obligations that stem from her work as governor general.
It is hard to imagine who would want to invite her to the usual conferences of former heads of state that involve the participation of retired GGs.
The government should also make sure that the next appointment is not chosen for symbolic reasons. It would be ideal to see Canada’s first Indigenous governor general and there are several capable nominees.
And it is also important that the proper due diligence is done in advance of the appointment and that the chosen candidate does not necessarily come with a narrow agenda, but rather a global view of their role as Canada’s head of state.
Some say the position is unnecessary. Past Parliaments have even entertained resolutions to see the role abolished.
But in reality, especially in a minority Parliament, the governor general has the power to keep a government in office even when the prime minister does not have the confidence of the House.
More than 12 years ago, former prime minister Stephen Harper was able to extend his time in government by six years when he convinced then governor general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament, thus deferring an imminent confidence motion where he would have faced certain defeat. The opposition vowed to form a coalition and vote against the fiscal update that was presented six weeks after the election. Jean’s decision killed that early confidence vote. Six weeks later, coalition momentum waned, and the government stayed in power.
Without the intervention of the governor general that would not have happened.
The position also requires someone who has a broad knowledge of Canadian politics and the law.
It is popular today to choose the anti-politician, someone who has no association with any political party, especially not the party in power.
But again, the governor general is a political position and should he held by someone with substance over style and who has broad political knowledge.
Canada can’t afford another astronautical mistake.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.