UPDATED: How Harper picked his GG is more important than who he chose - Macleans.ca

UPDATED: How Harper picked his GG is more important than who he chose

The PM should hand over the names of his expert advisory committee



Before we crank up the Love Story theme and lapse into discussing fun biographical details about Canada’s next Governor General, pause for a moment to consider what matters most about today’s appointment—the process behind it.

David Johnston, the  veteran university boss, legal scholar, and model for the character played by Ryan O’Neal in that mushy movie [many apologies for repeating what is apparently a time-worn fallacy, and thanks to those, including Lord Kitchener’s Own, below, for correcting the error] was chosen to take over from Michaelle Jean after a “robust consultation process” that’s being touted by the Prime Minister’s Office as the most rigorous ever.

Instead of the “ad hoc” survey of possible picks that prime ministers past relied on, Stephen Harper appointed an expert advisory committee, which spent a few weeks canvassing constitutional experts, retired and active political leaders, and other prominent Canadians.

The committee then presented Harper with a short list of recommendations, apparently with Johnston’s name at the top. His credentials as a former law professor seem to have figured in his selection.

This makes sense, especially in an era of minority governments. Jean, you’ll recall, was forced to deal with contentious constitutional questions when Harper asked her to prorogue Parliament under questionable circumstances. Even though she acted responsibly in seeking top-flight advice (notably from constitutional scholar Peter Hogg), the episode suggested it wouldn’t hurt for GGs to come equipped with their own credibility on such matters.

Harper also kept his political staff out of the selection process. This was explicitly to avoid any suggestion that the new Governor General was picked to provide a partisan edge.

All this is welcome change. It would be even better, though, if Harper’s office would now release the names of the members of the expert advisory committee, explain more precisely how they went about their consultations, and who was asked to weigh in.

The point of making the whole process more transparent would be to establish it more firmly as a convention, making it hard for any future prime minister to revert to the more informal ways that have been followed in the past. There’s no point in boasting about the seriousness of Johnston’s selection unless the exercise provides a clear template for filling every future vacancy at Rideau Hall.


This post was based on briefing this morning from Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister’s communications director. Soudas asked not to be named as the source of the information until after the official announcement was made at 10 a.m.

Now that the information can be attributed to him, here’s a direct quote of note: “The Prime Minister did not involve his political staff on this appointment,” Soudas said, adding a moment later, “The Prime Minister kept his political staff at bay on this one.”

This statement would seem to contradict a Canadian Press report that cited Conservative sources as saying that Ray Novak, Harper’s principal secretary and closest aide, was directly involved in the process, partly because of Novak’s strong personal views on the monarchy. I’ll try to get some clarification as the day progresses.


A senior official from the Prime Minister’s Office, who asked not to be named, called to explain that Ray Novak was involved in a “strictly logistical” roll in the consultation process, but had no influence “in terms of content.” That is, as I’m now given to understand it, Novak was closely involved in setting up the consultation and making sure it ran smoothly, but didn’t have a voice in the recommendations.


UPDATED: How Harper picked his GG is more important than who he chose

  1. Why can't we use a system like this to pick senators? Keeps down the cost of elections AND keeps partisanship out of it. Is this not obvious to anyone else??

    • Ahh, but Senators have to approve legislation. Can't trust impartial, educated, skilled people with that. :)

      • Heather, I am all for elections, I want a say in who get's to approve legislation. Of course I would like to save the money but like the Mastercard commercial, real democracy is PRICELESS!

        • And you get that when you elect the people who appoint the senators.

          Or are you saying you want to elect your judges and police officers too?

          • Police officers and judges don't pass legislation. Judges interpret legislation. Police officers uphold and enforce legislation (laws).

          • And this isn't as important or more than the actual legislation itself?

          • I don't agree with that. And I don't want to elect judges or police officers, they are complete different roles. That's my personal opinion.

          • How is senator different? It's not like they change the legislation at all.. heck, the judges have more leeway to change legislation than senators do. They just pass or refuse with recommendations. I'm not sure how you can say "We need to vote for the rubber stampers!" and then say "We don't need to vote for the Judges!" without being a hypocrite.

          • Spoken like somebody who really doesn't understand the function judges (especially those on the supreme court) perform in our society. In many cases the courts outweigh the Executive office.

          • You and Thwim don't really get it. The remedy powers under s.52 of the Constitution aren't trump cards, per se. They are the equivalent of a "redo" from the teacher, saying "that's not good enough."

            All the judges do is declare it unconstitutional (and temporarily suspend it), and give the legislature a good amount of lag time to re-write and pass new legislation, or let the offending section die after a certain deadline. The legislature is always free to override that dictum on certain grounds with s.33.

    • What system, exactly? I think that was Paul's point.

      • Exactly the same as the process for Senators, then.

        • I really don't want someone like Mike Duffy deciding on legislation, most senators are there for the wrong reasons, prestige, title, pension, etc.Not because they truly know they can make a difference in this country, I think only a handful are worth to be there, the rest do not deserve it, let them earn it, I believe that if they try to earn it more capable people will be running for it. I do not feel the same way for judges, I don't think is necessary for them to be elected .

          • Do you actually know any senators? Or what their backgrounds are? Or what they even do? It certainly doesn't sound like it. Holding elections would cost more money and would likely just duplicate the House of Commons. So where's the check and balance system then?

      • A system that involving using a panel of non-political people to make recommendations.

        • I do actually have the pleasure to know a couple of Senators. Again, to me the expense of an election will be well worth it ! Just because most senators have quite remarkable careers doesn't make them automatically qualified for this job. I understand what are you saying about the system, I just happen to don't agree with it, because they are political even though you might not think so, that's my personal opinion and I do hope PM Harper makes it happen!

  2. Hey Emily, a whole committee of experts from the 1950s!! Right? Right?

    • Law professors specialize and Mr. Johnston's area of expertise is not constitional law so I don't understand the pick.

      • And our previous two GG's had zero legal experience. So either way this is still a step in the right direction, if you think legal experience is a requisite for the job.

        • Or, more critically, constitutional experience.

    • Certainly no one with a toehold in THIS century.

      Elderly white guys overdue for retirement are thick on the ground.

      • What a racist you have become.

      • Bigot!

        • Emily is an anagram for 'limey' ;-)

          • 5th generation Canadian, and never from England. ;-)

      • Guess you have never heard of the psychological and historical concept of "The Sage" Senior male members of the society have always been revered as teachers of the young, passing on their wisdom and experience. Alas, the female counterpart is called "The Crone". but still …

  3. "the most rigorous ever"

    Yes, agree, if the process is noteworthy and unusually non-partisan, the details should be made public. ("nope: national security, GG is CinC")

    Generally, people have very little respect for the long fetch of history when they use superlatives so frequently. It is really hard to believe them this time.

    • I like the idea that the GG will be Canadian born and very well thought of by all. Also thank God and Greyhound the outgoing GG's husband is out of the picture. Did not like his back ground history. Jean was good but he spoiled the picture as far as I am concerned.

  4. The CTV story last night made big deal of "process" as well. Which means that the PMO is deliberately pushing the "process" message. Perhaps I'm irredeemably cynical, but I'll remain at least skeptical that in this government — where it appears virtually all significant decisions and processes are tightly controlled by the PMO if not the PM — the process was as pure as is being suggested.

    Johnston is certainly the most qualified nominee we've had in a long time, but the apparent push to laud the "process" leaves me less satisfied with his selection than I might otherwise be.

    • "but the apparent push to laud the "process" leaves me less satisfied with his selection than I might otherwise be."

      Really? You'd actually be happier if the PM went about this in a completely opaque manner and just arbitrarily chose a name off of a list? Personally, I think our government should be held as accountable as possible in all decisions it makes. This includes letting the public know the process about how decisions are made.

      • When politicians and their minions go out of their way to laud process rather than results, I start to wonder what about the result makes them feel a need to focus on the process.

        • They can't focus on both?

          • I assume that since the choice is almost universally accepted, Harper knew the only attack could possibly be the process: so they made sure the process was equally billed in the announcement.

  5. The guy certainly proved his mettle in giving Harper the exact terms-of-reference he wanted in the Mulroney/Schreiber matter.

    He will never upstage Harper on the national and international scene, either in style or in charisma.

    He ran the University which is the alma mater of many of Harper's political advisors.

    So, all in all, he fit the process perfectly.

  6. If I'm not mistaken, I believe Paul Wells predicted this appointment on this blog a few weeks ago.

    • Well, don't rely on my memory, but if I remember correctly I may be the only certified Ottawa pundit who didn't predict this. Jim Travers and John Ibbitson did, however.

      • Whoops, you're right. it was John Ibbitson's column that I was thinking of. Sorry.

        • They are virtually identical. (and interestingly have never been seen together)

          • Nah, Inkless is a greater expert on music. But you're right on one thing. They are two of the best.

  7. This is going to come up, like, a THOUSAND times between now and October, but Johnston was NOT the "model for the character played by Ryan O'Neal" in Love Story.

    Johnston was the model for a relatively minor character in the novel, Davey, the hockey captain. Ryan O'Neil played the story's main character Oliver Barrett IV. I'm not even sure the character of Davey that was modeled on Johnston appears in the film (there's a hockey game involving Harvard in the movie, so presumably the character "appears", but I've thankfully never seen the movie, so I don't know if the Captain of the team ever speaks in the movie, or is even seen in more than the background). IMDB shows no listing for a character named Dave, David, or Davey in the credits for Love Story, and the only hockey player listed in the credits is "Cornell Hockey Player". Johnston, of course, captained the HARVARD hockey team, as did the character in the novel who was modeled after him.

    Anyway, just want to nip this in the bud before we get to a "controversy" about Johnston claiming to be the model for Ryan O'Neal's character, which he would actually vehemently deny, I'm sure.

      • Yes, that was actually the point I was making. I wouldn't want this Macleans blog post to do to Johnston what the Times piece did to Gore (not that it really hurt Gore, but man, it must have been annoying for him to deny saying something he never said). It's not serious of course, I just thought it would be funny to insist that we nip this in the bud right now, before it goes the way of the Gore saga!

        • Poor Al! (In this case.)

          I'd say it did hurt him — the case against him was based on a "he's a slippery character who'll claim anything!" Heck, I was influenced by it — voted for Nader in 2000 because I just plain didn't like Gore. (My left-wing days.)

    • It was actually Al Gore who was in a mini-controversy about claiming to be the model for Oliver Barrett IV in "Love Story", back in his 2000 presidential campaign. Erich Segal clarified that the character's relationship with his father was indeed modeled after Harvard buddy Al Gore, but the character's macho personality was modeled after Gore's roommate, Tommy Lee Jones, who not coincidentally made his acting debut in a minor role as Barrett's roommate in the "Love Story" movie.

      David Johnston was a close friend and jogging partner of Erich Segal, and as captain of the Harvard hockey team Johnston was given his minor role in the book as Harvard hockey captain "Davey Johnston", a role that didn't translate into any speaking parts in the movie (probably because in the book, the character just shows up in the hockey scenes).

      • I didn't know that. I watched that movie about 30 years ago I should rent it!

      • See my reply to Ben above.

        I just don't want Johnston to have to go through what Gore had to go through when that Times story made it sound like he thought that he was the was the sole model for Oliver Barrett IV.

        It's also worth pointing out perhaps that in the Gore scenario everyone apparently agrees that Tipper wasn't the model for anything, lol.

        • Poor Tipper! Just for fun, here's a photo of the handsome couple from Al's Harvard days:

          Out of curiosity, I wonder how well David Johnston knew Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones.

          • Wow, they truly are the "All American".

          • Indeed. It's too bad they split up forty years later. Like many people, I'm amazed that Bill and Hillary are still married, but Al and Tipper have separated. Who saw that one coming?

          • Not me, that's too bad! I was reading about Tipper just hating her public life and wanting her later years to live a very private life, I can not blame her, I would hate that too! And Clinton and Hillary are just a really good team when it comes to their careers, I think that's what keeps them together!

  8. Now that the information can be attributed to him, here's a direct quote of note: “The Prime Minister did not involve his political staff on this appointment,” Soudas said, adding a moment later, “The Prime Minister kept his political staff at bay on this one.”

    You guys still take Soudas at his word, do you?

    • First, he's unnamed.

      After 10 am, he's Dimitri.

      An hour later, it's "A senior official from the Prime Minister's Office, who asked not to be named…"

      Seriously guys. At some point, if you stop taking the anonymous calls, they either have to issue a press release or shut up. Make them do their own spinniing for a while. It will make for better news stories, and will force the politicians out of their bunkers a bit more often.

  9. So now we have what appears to be a good appointment so the focus now moves to the process. Since we can't criticize the candidate we now have to attack the process. God it is frustrating watching some of you twist and turn in the wind. Emily are you reading this?

    • Well, I'm laughing at it. The nostalgia for the fifties 'father knows best' idea is strong on the right.

      • You are clearly incapable of recognizing and acknowledging a qaulity appointment. The man is ideal for the position and you can think of nothing else but to disparage his demographic traits. I think what SpenBC really meant was misandrist.

        • There are lots of qualified people. Not all of them white males.

          • This is true, but how is disqualifying somebody solely based on their gender and skin-color acceptable to you?

          • Thwim nailed it. He's an extremely qualified candidate, but Emily opposes him based solely on his race and gender. That's contemptible.

          • Thwim thunk. LOL

            Being a white male doesn't DISqualify him, it's simply that there are other people in this country.

            I guess we haven't gotten past that yet.

          • Fair enough, but so far the only criticisms of him I've seen from you are those relating to his race, age, and gender. If you've got others, by all means, lets hear them.

            Alternatively, if you have some better candidates you can bring forward, that might be an interesting discussion, or if we get some sort of evidence that the process used to select him was discriminatory (which is why Paul's point is important) then there too we can have a discussion.

            But simply saying "He's an old, white, male and therefore this appointment is bad" is no different from AVR's asinine comment in the other thread about those being the reasons the appointment is good.

          • Wasn't he the one who Harper appointed and set the parameters into the Schreiber/Mullrooney affair? And many questioned those restrictive parameters? If so, I'm inclined to believe that he'll be a patsy for Harper's next prorogation. Pls correct me if I'm wrong.

          • Emily you really are ridiculous. The facts are there are 34 million people living in Canada. I am sure in that lareg swath of people there are others who would qualify. However, admit it the only reason you object to Johnston is because Harper appointed him and you cannot give credit where credit is due.

            Like the appointment of Gary Doer as Ambassador to the States Harper has surprised everyone and it is only you who can only find criticism. Sad really.

          • If you live in Canada, please get over your prejudices.

          • Affirmative Action. Done all the time. Senator Sharon Carstairs called it "good discrimination" once.

          • or all of them former CBC talking heads,

          • Name one.

          • Emily …we have had 2 women, neither of whom were particularly well qualified nor were they born on the soil Canadians.
            Just because one is male does not make him a bad choice.
            Your prejudices are showing.

          • Hey, we just had two unwhite females, both not born in Canada. My household which is strongly feminine, if not feminist feels very strongly about this votes that Hios Excellency to be, Mr. Johnson is a great choice. , After all he is a white male who speaks at least English and Chretien's other language. In the future must be born in Canada , but abode not important, althhough it could be a big step from igloo to the GG res. My family believes white, Innuit, Aboriginal all the same. What GG says is not all the importan, anywayt. Bu imagine Innuit in furs and chewing on baby seal skin. What kind of painted ladies wouold that prompt (see item on oil sands and seal skins).

      • Presumably a 12year old girl would be satisfactory to you?

      • "The nostalgia for the fifties 'father knows best' idea is strong on the right."

        Certainly is, especially when so many adults can think back on their lives and realize indeed how often their fathers really did know best. Well, unless their dad was a granola-crunching dipper or some such thing, then I could see how this concept seems so alien.

    • After the criticism Paul Martin got for appointing Ms. Jean it only seems fair to put Mr. Harper's choice under the microscope. Sorry if this interferes with your cannonization of Mr. Johnston.

    • I agree with Geddes on this one. I'm inclined to ask for more details on the process in order that, provided it wasn't an expert panel of people who just happened to also donate loads of money to only one specific political party (et cetera), it can become the rule, rather than the exception in GG selections to come.

      That there was a committee process alone is a step forward. Let's keep moving in that direction.

    • As LaxAtlDfwYow noted above, the newsworthy nod to the process arouses suspicion in those of us who have grown to question Mr Harper's every move. Stephen Harper is a very smart politician and his reputation as a good tactician is well deserved. Given that, it is very hard to interpret even the smallest emphasis on the process as being anything other than an attempt to shape public opinion.
      David Johnston seems to be a fine choice, and credit where credit is due, but Mr Harper is a proponent of incremental change – thus I look for purpose in every move he makes – big or small.

      No Stephen Harper is not evil, nor is he all bad – but I am no longer naive either.

    • You are so right. Some people can't help themselves. They have to be unhappy about something.

    • Good on you…Exactly , no matter how this government does something the Liberal press finds fault.
      The Liberals gave us 2 journalists and the press went ga ga The Conservatives give us a well educated, articulate bilingual ,born in Canada gentleman whom they cannot fault and so now they question the process.

      No win for Harper .Myself I am glad the apointment has been made and we no longer have to watch a Haitian parade around as the Canadians GG.

  10. Senior official in the PMO – but feels he has to remain nameless. How ridiculous.

  11. "A senior official from the Prime Minister's Office, who asked not to be named,"

    Journalism is DEAD in this country. You are writing about the role of PMO political staffers and "politics" in the GG selection. You take Soudas' word that they were not involved. You question this based on the involvement of Novak. Now you say Novak was indeed involved but exerted no political influence … and you grant the purveyor of this tidbit of news (another PMO official no less) ANONYMITY?

    What credibility does a political staffer have saying, off the record and without attribution, "politics played no part"? One political officer says another political officer didn't play politics … off the record? A pox on you for publishing this self-serving drivel and spin.

    • Can you seriously not tell the difference between reporting what someone says and evaluating the legitimacy of it?

      Geddes does both here. He reports, objectively as possible, what was said (later identifying Soudas), and broadly questions the legitimacy of what was said by raising the whole issue of the PMO not elaborating (yet) on what the process was.

      This is pretty much EXACTLY how journalism is supposed to work.

      It seems to me that it is not journalism that is dead but the reading comprehension and critical thinking skills of the masses.

      • No, my comprehension is fine. Others seem to have posted with similar concerns. As for my critical thinking, I'm prepared to agree to disagree with you … but your aspersions are not helpful.

        I think it's entirely valid to object to how commonplace the granting anonymity to political operatives has become in Canadian journalism. During the last election, I asked each of the editors of Canada's major papers to describe their policies towards attribution/anonymity. Cue silence. Complete silence.

        While most vile when one "senior PMO" or "senior party" operative — of any party — is shielded by a journalist while savaging a named opponent, it's also insidious when the subject matter being reported upon is political influence in public appointments.

        The irony in this case is that, by requesting anonymity, the PMO source actually cast a grain of suspicion on the selection process he sought to praise. Indeed, the PMO seems to have made an effort to improve the GG selection process. Yet the compulsion in Canada is for movers and shakers to make comments anonymously, and for journalist to oblige.

        News is not the same as PR … or at least it shouldn't be.

        • Used to work in the news biz. Now, I'm on the non-political side of the civil service. Seems to me the reason why so many anonymous sources get airtime/print space is that the Cab Mins and PM's stopped talking to reporters about 10 years ago. Now, they know reporters will pool dive for pennies because the paper money stays in the wallet.

          Solution? Moratorium on publishing anonymous sources unless it's watergate 2. Giv it six months, and the PM starts holding press conferences again. You remember those.

          By the way, how come Geddes can find Soudas for a leak, but nobody can find Soudas? Can't someone deliver a "summons pizza" to the PMO?

  12. "No political staff were involved," says political staffer. "Except that political staffer who was involved, but not really involved," says refuses-to-be-named political staffer.

  13. Apparently you're unaware of the meaning of word.

  14. Pretty sure I read that the opposition also had some input into the decision.

    Given the overheated rhetoric that passes for media attention in this country, knowing or not knowing if there is truth in that will take the bloviating out of at least a half dozen unneeded or wanted MP monkey blurts before they get up a head of steam….

  15. I came across some interesting information on Elections Canada's financing database.

    In 1993 a David L Johnston donated $197 to the Liberal party (Lloyd is the new GG's middle name).

    In 1997 a David L Johnston donated $200 to the PC party.

    In 2000 a David Johnston (or two people named David Johnston) donated $472 and $475 to the Canadian Alliance.

    In 2004 and 2005 a David L Johnston gave the CPC $100.

    In 2009 a David L Johnston donated 600 to the CPC.

    So, assuming this is the new governor-general, he probably is on the right, but can honestly say he has supported at least three different political parties in his day.

    • Sorry, 4 parties

      • That's some pretty semantic counting you're doing there.. separating the PC, the CA and the CPC.

        • Yes, 3 out of the 4 are the same party, name changes notwithstanding.

        • Let's split the difference at 3 different parties. Remember the merger was actually an Alliance takeover and the death of the PC party if we go by the old Liberal talking point. Got to keep it consistent.

          • Why would you be consistent now? There are only 2 parties in that donation list.

          • You're lying. There are clearly 4 parties in that donation list. Your opinion that all parties to the right of Communists is not an accurate reflection of reality.

    • There are probably way too many David L Johnstons in Canada to read anything into this.

      • Indeed. It's a very common name, even with the middle initial.

      • It looks like I jumped the gun. I didn't realize that (after 2004) you can check the location of donors. This David L Johnston is from BC.

        • Well that seems to settle it. You are now telling us that the David L. Johnston, wantabe GG has been too cheap to support the political process all these years! Without support of "the best of Canada" how are all those parties we see in this blog suppose to happen? I will have to withdraw my approval for this would-be GG.

        • I was able to find that Stephen Clarkson donated to Dion's campaign though.

      • And in my defense, David L Johnston was the only David Johnston to donate until recently. Moreover, it is possible that the pre-2003 donor is the governor-general, but I can't find location data.

  16. Why did you allow that second update, Mr. Geddes? I mean, what is so sensitive that this person refused to be named? Part of the reason we have so many anonymous sources and thus so little verifiable news is because good journalists, like yourself, do not seem to think to tell these people, "Look, there's no reason to be anonymous on this. If I can't properly source this statement, I'm not going to put it out there. Unless you want to add, on the record, that your job is on the line if it gets out that you said this, there's just nothing that justifies you being anonymous about it."

    Presumably they want the statement out. Why let anonymity be the default option for their PR?

    • Agreed.

  17. Now having read the updates above, it strikes me that the PMO is on the verge of pissing away what should be an easy and very positive announcement for them. Rather than just announcing what is a superbly qualified nominee, they feel the need to laud some pure and independent process. That, inevitably, leads to media questions as to "how pure" and "how independent"; questions the PMO has now appeared to have mishandled with releases, qualifications and anonymous sourcing.

    For gawd's sake PMO, Johnston is a great candidate; say that and then shut up.

  18. A obviously good choice for GG and, kudos to Harper, for the consultation process leading to the selection.

    <sarcasm> That being said, it's good to see a lawyer finally get some recognition within our government because god knows lawyers don't have nearly enough power or influence in Ottawa already… </sarcasm>

  19. There needs to be some sort of a gestation period for anonymous sources. I think the Press Gallery should consider publishing the names of all anonymous sources some period, say six months, after a story has been published.

    • P.S.: But that same requirement should not apply to anonymous blog commenters :-)

  20. I'd have to disagree: who he picked is more important than how he reached that decision.

    However, I do agree that since the process seems to have been an improvement, it would be good to enshrine that so that the improvement isn't lost with successive Prime Ministers. Always document your good ideas, as they say, and in this case "document" means "make them public".

  21. He was picked as a reward for his narrow terms of reference for the Mulroney commission. That narrow definition made it impossible to explore whether there was a payoff for the Air Canada airbus deal.

    • Totally agree. See my post above tho I didnt' say it as well as you.

  22. Is Harper attempting to diminish the office of the Governor General? He couldn't be bothered to make a formal announcement with Johnson of the appointment, but leaked it and then sent out his flunkies.

  23. It must be hard for those who have bought into the image of Harper as this evil, eater of kittens, ready to do anything for power image that has been projected by the progressive left and carried on by the MSM to see that he actually collaborates way more than more PMs. The difference is only the Harper has a clear vision of Canada – that does not include making everyone a victim of something.

  24. John, John, John – "more important then WHOM he chose." Please, editors, edit!

  25. In days of yore this sort of comment was termed "counting how many faires could stand on the head of a pin." For you you nger types that is the kind of fairy that didn't go on parade.