Trudeau, Payette may be headed for awkward encounter over throne speech, observers say


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Julie Payette are headed for what could be an uncomfortable public moment on Wednesday, when Payette delivers the speech from the throne while her office is under a cloud of controversy due to harassment claims.

The Governor General is always the centre of attention when a throne speech is presented — but never before like this.

Earlier this month, the Privy Council Office confirmed it had hired a private company to conduct a probe into claims of a toxic work environment and verbal harassment at Rideau Hall. The probe was triggered by a CBC News story detailing reports of mistreatment.

CBC News has spoken to more than 20 sources, including current public servants and former Rideau Hall employees, who say that Payette has created a toxic workplace by yelling at, belittling and publicly humiliating staff. Payette’s second-in-command and longtime friend, Assunta Di Lorenzo, also faces claims of bullying employees.

Political scientists and constitutional experts say they expect to see Trudeau and Payette going through the motions of the throne speech ceremony while trying to downplay any suggestions of underlying tension between the PMO and Rideau Hall.

“It’s an awkward situation,” said Michael Jackson, president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada at Massey College in Toronto. “One has never seen as prolonged a criticism of a vice-regal person as in this particular case.”

Payette shares a laugh with Trudeau before delivering the throne speech in the Senate chamber on Dec. 5, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Jackson said he plans to watch Payette’s delivery of the speech very closely to see if she adds any comments of her own. While the speech itself is written by the Prime Minister’s Office and outlines the government’s policy vision, governors general are the ones who actually read the speech publicly in the Senate chamber — and can also add a preamble about their own activities.

On occasion, past governors general have injected short passages into throne speeches touching on events of national importance, such as upcoming royal visits or anniversaries, Jackson said. The Privy Council Office, which receives a Governor General’s introductory text to be included in the speech, confirmed it “typically includes a few paragraphs.” 

But in a departure from the norm, Payette added 11 to 12 paragraphs to the speech in 2019 — including a reference to the shared “space-time continuum.”

‘Platitudes’

“We share the same planet,” Payette said during the 2019 speech. “We know that we are inextricably bound to the same space-time continuum and on board the same planetary spaceship.”

“I thought it was surprising for the Governor General to put her own imprint on what is a speech by and for the government of the day. These kinds of almost platitudes and digressions confused many people,” Jackson said.

Philippe Lagassé of Ottawa’s Carleton University researches the roles of Parliament and the Crown in Westminster states like Canada. He said Payette feels strongly about protecting her privacy and how she’s portrayed in the media — and he wouldn’t be surprised if she makes some reference to the controversy swirling around her office in Wednesday’s speech.

“I think it will be interesting to see if Her Excellency makes a point of addressing the criticisms in some direct or indirect way,” he said. 

Beyond the harassment claims, those controversies include the hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money spent on enhancing Payette’s personal privacy. CBC News has also cited sources saying Payette’s disregard for the Mounties paid to protect her has resulted in added security risks and unnecessary costs to the taxpayer. The National Post and Radio-Canada published stories about claims of ill treatment of staff when Payette ran the Montreal Science Museum.

But anything Rideau Hall wants to add to the speech would have to be vetted by the government ahead of time. The Privy Council Office plays a role in overseeing that vetting process.

“This isn’t going to come as a surprise to anybody — unless she chooses to ad lib on the spot,” Lagassé said.

Trudeau looks on as Payette, the Governor General designate, speaks to reporters on Parliament Hill on July 13, 2017. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Barbara Messamore, a history professor and fellow of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada, said Wednesday’s speech from the throne is likely to go smoothly. She said it would be wise for Payette to keep her additions to the speech to an absolute minimum.

“We should not see any nod to any controversy,” said Messamore. “That’s not what the occasion is about and I think it would be a distraction.”

The prime minister skirted the harassment controversy at first. More than a month after it broke, however, Trudeau called Payette an “excellent” Governor General and said he had no intention of replacing her. His words offended many of the whistleblowers who complained of harassment — one said it felt like a “kick in the stomach.”

Asked later why he praised Payette publicly, Trudeau referred to her former roles as an astronaut and scientist.

“We have engaged a third-party reviewer to follow up on these serious allegations and we will wait for the reviewer to do their work,” Trudeau said on Sept. 9.

Errol Mendes, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Ottawa and a former senior adviser to the Privy Council Office, said Trudeau’s comment likely was meant to lighten the atmosphere between the PMO and Rideau Hall before the throne speech.

“I think he was trying to temper the fact he had just launched a truly historic investigation into the allegations of the Governor General,” Mendes said. “That has never happened before in the history of the country.

“So maybe he was trying to lessen the potential tension between him and the Governor General before the throne speech.”





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