Editorial: Amid accusations, assessing the role of a governor general

Julie Payette finds herself in a predicament almost unheard of in the history of Governors General. Her workplace is being investigated over allegations Payette has created a toxic environment.

Staff have accused her of verbal harassment, abusive behaviour, and reducing employees to tears. Some former workers describe a culture of fear at Rideau Hall-the Governor General’s official residence.

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The investigation was instigated by the Privy Council Office after several complaints surfaced about Payette’s bullying style. An independent investigator is being called in to conduct the inquiry.

It’s important to note that we are dealing only with allegations at this point. Nothing has been proved, and Payette has said she welcomes an investigation. In addition some staff members, past and present, have said they enjoyed working with her.

Nevertheless, this isn’t the first time grievances like these have swirled around Payette. In her previous role as head of the Montreal Science Centre, similar allegations were made.

Colleagues there complained about her temper tantrums, and said she lacked calm and empathy. They felt her management skills were limited.

Payette is three years into an appointment that by tradition lasts a minimum of five.

If the allegations are upheld, in whole or in part, the prime minister would have to review the situation. We’re in uncharted waters here.

Officially, the Governor General is appointed by the Queen. It is unclear whether the prime minister could, if he wished, force her resignation, though it’s unlikely things would come to that. A quiet talking-to might suffice.

The broader issue is what we should be looking for in a Governor General.

Payette was chosen, in part, because of her place in Canadian history as the country’s first female astronaut to board the Space Station. That made her an instant role model for young women everywhere.

In addition she was no stranger to the kind of media attention that comes with the post.

But is that enough? This is perhaps the most difficult job in public life.

Holders of the appointment are expected to play a dual role. As the Queen’s representative, they assume most of the functions given a head of state.

That means they must champion the ideals and principles that our country embraces, and bring a sense of dignity to their formal activities.

At the same time though, they are expected to avoid controversy and steer clear of political matters, since these are the purview of Parliament.

This is a narrow, and at times indistinct line to walk.

In days gone by, that challenge was solved by appointing people who were at or nearing the end of their careers in public life. They had nothing left to prove, and had learned the art of diplomacy.

Governors general like Saskatoon’s Ray Hnatyshyn, Manitoba’s Ed Shreyer or Jean Sauvé, the latter a past Speaker of the House of Commons, were outstanding examples. Each brought dignity to the office.

Julie Payette was chosen for a different reason. Still at the height of her working life, it was thought she would bring to the post an aura of self-confidence and energy, and so she did.

Roughly half the country wants to cut ties with the monarchy, and there are likewise doubts about the value of the governor generalship. Maybe Payette, with her forceful style, could re-invigorate the post.

Yet assertiveness and vitality are not principally the qualities of a governor general, who must suppress her personality to take on a more symbolic role. These are no doubt valuable qualities elsewhere in life, but perhaps not in such a delicate position.

However the Payette inquiry turns out, there are lessons to be learned.

Governors general should not be appointed purely on the basis of their personal accomplishments. They should be appointed for their ability to display the qualities Canadians want in a head of state.

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