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.