OPINION: Governor General vacancy leaves Canadians with important question

by | Jan 29, 2021 | Opinion

Ever since Julie Payette’s appointment as the 29th Governor General in 2017, the coverage around her has been tumultuous.

Years of sparring with the media culminated in a July 2020 report stating the former astronaut has manifested a toxic work environment, and six months later she offered the prime minister her resignation.

The vacancy has led to criticism for all involved, and rightfully so. It is clear Justin Trudeau and his government did not vet Payette sufficiently, and perhaps they should have taken three years of reporting citing her lack of work ethic and bullying more seriously.

But there will be the time in the future to examine these shortcomings. What is more pressing is a question that has begun to pick up steam: should Canada have a Governor General in the first place?

This is not the first time critics have called for the abolishment of the position, and they present some persuading arguments. It is a largely ceremonial role tied to a monarchy we are no longer subjects of and, perhaps more importantly, commands a salary of almost $300,000.

But the salary is just part of the expense. Between travel, security, housing, and all the things necessary for someone to properly “represent the queen,” the tab can run over $20 million. In a time where COVID-19 has forced the government to expend billions of dollars just to keep the country afloat, saving that money is certainly attractive.

Canada wouldn’t even be the first country to do it. Barbados announced in its throne speech last September that it would be removing the position, with a speech written by Prime Minister Mia Mottley saying “the time has come for us to fully leave our colonial past behind.”

So it’s an expensive job that’s viewed as largely ceremonial and there’s precedent to eliminate it. Done deal right? Not quite.

For a start, it’s not actually as expensive as it sounds. Sure, $20 million is a large stand-alone number, but when it’s put into the context of a budget that regularly tops $300 billion, the number loses some of its grandeur.

It’s also not like that investment doesn’t buy us anything. There is an argument having someone in the Queen’s stead preside over our government gives us a closer relationship with the monarchy, and therefore the government in the United Kingdom, which is currently the fifth largest economy in the world.

As for the precedent, while it may have happened recently, it certainly does not happen often, as the last country to do so was Mauritius in 1992.

But perhaps the most salient point for the removal of the position is the simple fact that it doesn’t accomplish much. While Governor General’s will meet with world leaders, they do not contribute to Canadian policy decisions. They don’t even help decide who gets the Order of Canada, an award they hand out.

But saying the Governor General has never participated actively in Canadian politics would be misleading. It was a Canadian Governor General, Lord Byng, who forever changed how the position worked around the world after the King-Byng crisis in 1926, and more recently it was Michaelle Jean’s decision to prorogue parliament on Steven Harper’s request that arguably earned him his next two terms in office.

So there is clearly good and bad with the position. I am of the opinion that watchdogs like the Governor General are important in any democracy, no matter how ceremonial their power may seem. And there is something to be said for the simple matter of tradition.

I am not arguing Payette was a good Governor General. Clearly, she was wrong for the position. But taking one women’s failure and using it to dismantle a fixture in Canadian politics would be hasty, and potentially, ill-advised.