Skepticism of celebrity should be a key factor in governor general pick, former advisory panel member says


When an advisory committee was tasked with helping to find a new governor general in 2010, it was urged to look closely at each candidate’s “judgment and temperament,” and to be skeptical of “simple celebrity,” a former member says.

Rainer Knopff, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary, said he thinks such a committee —  like the one created then by the Stephen Harper government — should be re-established.

His comments follow the resignation of Julie Payette as governor general. The former astronaut left the post after a workplace review found she presided over a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall.

“We took our time doing it thoroughly,” Knopff said in an email to CBC News. “We were to prioritize substantially accomplished people, but to be skeptical of simple celebrity.”

“It was to be a capstone appointment for a fully developed career, not a mid-life stepping-stone appointment,” Knopff said. “Judgment and temperament were key.”

Knopff’s six-member committee was chaired by longtime public servant and secretary to the governor general Sheila-Marie Cook. Other members included Kevin MacLeod, who was Canadian secretary to the Queen, along with historians and political scientists.

Christopher McCreery, private secretary to the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia and one of the committee members, wrote in the book The Crown and Parliament that the committee was looking for candidates who had an understanding of the system of government, their constitutional duties and a respect for the Crown’s position in Canadian society.

‘Lifetime of achievement’

Candidates also had to have gained  “considerable experience through a lifetime of achievement” and understand the constraints and opportunities offered by vice-regal service, McCreery wrote.

Panel members contacted lieutenant governors, premiers, retired politicians, state officials and public figures from a wide variety of fields. Several hundred names were compiled, he said. 

Julie Payette resigned as governor general following reports that she presided over a toxic work environment at Rideau Hall. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In the end, the committee presented Harper with a three-person short list.

“David Johnston topped the list,” Knopff said. “Worked pretty well, I’d say.”

In 2012, Harper made the committee permanent, renaming it the Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments. It did come up with short lists for lieutenant governors and territorial commissioners, and it was to do the same for the new governor general in 2017.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abandoned the process when it came to choosing Payette.

Call to reestablish advisory committee

“Prime Minister Trudeau, because of his vanity, put aside [a] committee created by the Conservatives that did a good job and decided all by himself what is good for Canada,” said Conservative House Leader Gerard Deltell

“Well now we see the result.”

The Conservatives are now calling on Trudeau to consult opposition parties and reestablish the advisory committee  when choosing the next governor general.

Although potential red flags about Payette’s behaviour had been raised by former employers, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau was more interested in “seeking a flashy headline” than conducting a proper vetting.

“Really it comes down to Justin Trudeau, who is more interested in a flashy announcement as a governor general rather than doing the work of making sure it was the right selection,” he said.

On Friday, Trudeau was asked by reporters about his decision not to use a selection committee in 2017.

“We will continue to the look at the best way to the select people for the vice regal appointments,” he said. “It is an important role for Canadians and we’ll look at how we can improve it.”



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