The immaculate conception of David Johnston

WELLS: "There is a lot of nice china at Rideau Hall and I think we can all rest assured Johnston won't pinch it"

How odd it was to read and hear today, from many sources, how little Stephen Harper and his usual crew had to do with the selection of David Johnston as Governor General. The prime minister is not normally a shy man nor unsure of his ability: he obviously usually believes he makes a situation better by becoming more involved in it. He doesn’t like to think too hard or gather too much data about a situation either. Facts are for criminologists, census-takers and budget officers. Stephen Harper knows what he wants and he knows how to get it.

Yet here he was, setting up a Manhattan Project of vice-regal search teams, sealed off hermetically from himself and his staff, committees and flowcharts, boxes within boxes, airlocks and latex gloves. Ray Novak was permitted to bring in a pencil or some Timbits at set intervals, but he was not to be touched or looked at when he did.

Two questions:

(a) Is it a very great surprise that such a process chose David Johnston?

(b) Does anyone doubt the decision to proceed in such a manner was political?

Let’s take these questions in reverse order. I’ll confess that, having thought a fair bit over four years about whom Harper might select for governor general, I had long since concluded he would pick somebody identifiably conservative. Not Preston Manning, or Marjorie LeBreton, say, but simply somebody no Liberal prime minister could ever bring himself to support with enthusiasm. Harper often makes such picks, and the point of making them is precisely to demonstrate that he is the guy making the pick. It’s the instinct of a guy who spent a lot of years in opposition watching Liberal governments congratulate themselves for doing things he wouldn’t have done. Now it’s his turn. So I thought he might nominate Gwyn Morgan, for instance, to move into Rideau Hall.

But the confrontational, base-consolidating choice is not the only kind Harper knows how to make. He’s often equally bold at reaching outside his comfort zone, as he did with the Québécois nation resolution, the residential-schools apology or the decision to unite with the Progressive Conservatives (three decisions that have nothing in common except that they demanded a diplomatic streak few suspected in Harper). There can be political advantage in being less partisan. It’s not his instinct, but sometimes he gets that.

Now look at the last four governors general. Michaëlle Jean and especially Adrienne Clarkson were non-partisan but they seemed custom-built to set cultural conservatives’ teeth rattling: lifetime tenants of the state broadcaster, patrons of the taxpayer-subsidized arts, beloved within certain cliques (what Robert Fulford sometimes calls “Deepest Annex”) and not elsewhere. But before them there was Roméo LeBlanc and Ray Hnatyshyn, party lifers whose only obvious recommendation was that the prime ministers who selected them had been tripping over them in cabinet rooms and campaign offices for half a life.

Now look, all of those four worked out fine in the end. I was especially fond of Clarkson, a lot of people adore Jean, the other two have their fierce defenders. But at the time of their selection they were deeply divisive. The Reform caucus boycotted LeBlanc’s installation. The National Post went to war against the Clarkson nomination — a conflict she stopped in its tracks with her installation speech, which the Post printed in its entirety the next day.

I think the importance of the “glass ceiling” over the Harper Conservatives’ voter support is exaggerated. Every day the Liberals congratulate themselves that he can’t win a majority is a day he gets to be prime minister, usually with help from Liberal confidence votes. But it’s true that he still needs to demonstrate, every now and then, that he can be the prime minister for everyone by doing things everyone can support or at least live with. And after the psychodramas of the last several viceregal nominations, one way to show he can be a grownup is to preside over the least-partisan new nomination in memory.

As for whether Johnston’s nomination is a surprise, again, I’ll confess plainly I didn’t expect it. But then, I didn’t know the boxes-and-airlocks process that was in place. Given such a process, it’s easy to predict the sort of person that will come out the other end: ubiquitous, dignified and, um, not super-memorable.

It will be entertaining to read the pocket bios of Johnston over the next few days to see whether any of his many admirers can recall anything in particular he ever said. Here in Waterloo, where I’m visiting, somebody today characterized his role at the University of Waterloo as “saying ‘Yes’ to everything.” It would be hard to think of anyone who has been involved, up to the neck, in more issues of public controversy and wound up getting less controversy on himself than David Johnston. I’m not knocking it. It’s a skill. It’s probably not compatible with the prospect of endless nights’ fascinating conversation at Rideau Hall dinners, but the country will probably survive. Elsewhere here, my colleague Andrew Coyne marvels at Johnston’s “character.” To a great extent it’s an excellent point: there is a lot of nice china at Rideau Hall and I think we can all rest assured Johnston won’t pinch it. But I like my characters to surprise me by saying something I wasn’t expecting, and for that we will have to wait for another governor general.

But so what. Not only do I have no real objection to his nomination, I can’t imagine anyone who would. For the constitutional requirements of the job, he is wildly overqualified. Everyone says the choices facing governors general, especially in a period of endless minority governments, are crucial and delicate. No they’re not. Defer to the Prime Minister. When you’re not sure who the Prime Minister is, defer to the Commons. When the Commons isn’t sure, defer to the electorate. If it wasn’t too hard for Michaëlle Jean, a former UWO law dean will be able to handle it in his sleep.

Soon we will forget David Johnston is there, but when reminded we will feel vaguely pleased about it and move on. That’s what Stephen Harper wanted. A decent day’s work.

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