It is, of course, unfair to place all the blame on Payette. In all of Canadian history, no governor general has ever done anything consequential or interesting.
According to Payette’s website, the GG’s office performs “constitutional duties,” “represents Canada” and “encourages excellence.” In the real world, none of this is remotely true. Governor generals are permitted no independent agency, meaning to the extent they do much of anything, it’s either puppeteered by someone else or a duplication of something some other, more popular and appreciated member of the government already does.
The governor general has meetings with world leaders and takes trips to foreign countries. These accomplish precisely nothing, since the governor general is not permitted to participate in Canadian foreign policy.
The governor general visits schools and hospitals and disaster sites. These serve mostly to confuse, as onlookers struggle to remember who this person is and wonder when the prime minister is coming. (Much has been made of the fact that Gov. Gen. Payette has not yet visited Humboldt, Saskatchewan, the site of a horrific bus accident last April, but of all the anxieties on the mind of that community, a pop-in by a woman whose relevance has to be explained is surely least among them).
The governor general hands out good-citizenship awards, including the Order of Canada, but, as the Post noted, to Payette’s evident surprise it is considered an affront to “convention” for her to be actively involved in deciding who gets them.
The governor general signs bills into law but has no right of veto. And the GG is usually too busy gallivanting around to do even this. Judges of the Canadian Supreme Court routinely sign laws on the governor general’s behalf, as well as perform the various other rubber-stamp legal rituals expected from the nation’s figurehead-in-chief.
For these vital services, Canadians pay $22 million every year, including the governor-general’s nearly $300,000 salary (which was finally subject to income tax in 2012 but simultaneously hiked to ensure minimal discomfort). As last year’s report of the secretary to the governor general noted, “six federal government departments and agencies are also mandated to support the activities of the Governor General,” adding another $30 million to the tab.
I would challenge any Canadian to cite a single speech, act or deed (other than the King-Byng non-event) by a governor general that Canadians appreciate or remember. As a practical matter, the only real purpose of the position is to bring a bit of Victorian whimsy to the dreary lives of politicians in Canada’s capital and provide an object of obsession for effete royalist nerds to wring their wrists over. In what was perhaps the most shared anecdote of the Post’s exposé, it was observed with horror that Payette, a former astronaut, once wore a NASA medal on her blouse that was not part of the governor general’s authorized suite of decorations. “Given that the entire essence of Payette’s job as governor general is ceremonial, her purpose to uphold protocol,” the article noted with strained credulity, “to some observers such transgressions raise the question of why Payette accepted the job in the first place.”
To sane Canadians, however, “such transgressions” raise the more pressing question of why the country needs to be spending $50 million a year “upholding protocol” at all.
The governor general serves on behalf of Canada’s legal head of state, the British monarch, and the monarchy is itself a preposterous legal anachronism most Canadians are barely aware of. Among the self-proclaimed “constitutional experts” who rush the microphones whenever the role of the crown or governor general is questioned, it is received wisdom that Canada’s entire democratic order would collapse without this supposed keystone. This, too, is nonsense.
The single most critical constitutional function a governor general can perform — appointing a prime minister at a time of parliamentary uncertainty, as the lieutenant governor of New Brunswick will soon be summoned to do — is a job so constrained by precedent and convention it could easily be replaced with a law filling half a sheet of paper. A prime minister is the head of the largest faction of the legislature, so let the legislature elect the person directly on its first sitting. If a neutral arbitrator is needed to chair, why not task one of our famously oh-so-neutral judges?
In 2012, Ottawa abolished the Canadian penny, citing “excessive and rising cost of production relative to face value.” That wise logic deserves broad application when it comes to Canada’s sclerotic political institutions.
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