Last autumn Stephen Harper decided he had a rare luxury, a few free months to plan ahead without worrying the opposition would try to defeat his government. He visited China and India and then, throwing caution to the wind, invited hundreds of journalists to 24 Sussex Drive for a pre-Christmas cocktail.
During the obligatory small-talk portion of the evening, Harper confessed amazement over his visit to the Great Wall of China. Not because the wall is big or beautiful, but because its construction extended over centuries, so that almost everyone who worked on it was committing to a project that could not be completed while he lived.
Other people are moved by a sonnet or a perfect game. Stephen Harper mists up at the thought of long-term planning. This makes him an odd mix for Ottawa, where Monday’s scandal or cause is generally forgotten by Friday. But the long view helps guide his action when he selects the only public official with the power to simply decide, one day, whether Harper gets to remain prime minister. That’s the governor general.
The question is not abstract. In 2008 the Liberals brokered that coalition with the NDP that depended on Bloc Québécois support. Every Liberal MP, including Michael Ignatieff, signed a letter to the Governor General endorsing that pact. Harper’s own cabinet told him that if he lost power he should not expect to hold on to the Conservative leadership. He had to go to Rideau Hall and plead with Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. It’s the sort of thing that sticks in a prime minister’s memory.
Michaëlle Jean’s replacement will almost certainly be waiting at Rideau Hall if Harper ever again faces another coalition challenge. It’s fantasy to think Harper left the choice of a new governor general to chance.
So it was entertaining to watch his staff multiply their descriptions of the ornate, arm’s-length process by which David Johnston was selected. It was all so exquisitely non-partisan, they said and repeated. Political staffers were barred. “This is not about politics,” Harper’s spokesman told the newspapers.
Then the PMO released the names of the committee who helped select Johnston. Some of its members are indeed not about politics. Sheila-Marie Cook has been secretary to the Governor General since 2006. She’s like Michaëlle Jean’s senior bureaucrat.
But at least three others have strong opinions about the role of the GG, and those opinions can best be summed up as, “Know your limits.” Christopher McCreery, a historian who is private secretary to the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, wrote an op-ed in 2006 detailing all the ways Adrienne Clarkson had overstepped her role. “Sadly few senior officials in the PMO/PCO or at Rideau Hall have been willing to stand up to a governor general,” he wrote, “and tell them what is appropriate and what is not.”
The two most interesting committee members were two political scientists. Christopher Manfredi is dean of arts at McGill. He studied at the University of Calgary, where Rainer Knopff is a professor. The PMO release on the committee says Manfredi “is an authority on the role of the judiciary in democratic societies,” whereas Knopff “is well-known for his views about the influence of judicial decisions on Canadian public policy.”
What are their views on the role of the judiciary? Broadly, that judges are political actors the same way legislators are. And, broadly, that that’s been a problem. In 2004, Manfredi told a Commons committee that closer scrutiny by MPs of Supreme Court nominees wouldn’t politicize the court because that cat was already out of the bag. “I would argue that the character of the 21st century Supreme Court is that it is already a political rather than a legal institution.”
These aren’t heretical notions. They are solidly in the mainstream of debate about the role of courts. They’re also really popular with Stephen Harper, whose first chief of staff Ian Brodie has said he “found Manfredi’s lessons on the power of the courts and judicial appointments were constantly helpful” in his own studies. Knopff’s signature appears with Harper’s at the bottom of the 2001 “firewall letter” to Ralph Klein advocating limits on federal influence in Alberta’s jurisdictions.
So these guys go back a ways. That’s not unusual either. If a Liberal prime minister had concocted an arm’s-length advisory board before naming a governor general, he might reach out to liberal academics like Errol Mendes or Sujit Choudhry. They would pick somebody fine and upstanding with an expansive view of the governor general’s role. Somebody like Adrienne Clarkson.
This crew has picked somebody fine and upstanding who is a good deal likelier to take a more modest view of his role. That will come in handy if Harper goes to Rideau Hall as an incumbent PM against another 2008-style coalition of other parties.
The irony is that in 2008, when Michaëlle Jean was the referee, she did precisely as he asked. But she made him nervous. He has done what he can to ensure that next time, he won’t have to be nervous.