A New Resident in Rideau Hall
Turning our attention north to Canada now, the first Canadian post on TOP looks at a fresh face in Ottawa. With very little pomp and fanfare, Canada welcomed a new Governor General on October 1, 2010. The event went largely unnoticed in the country, as many Canadians went about their daily lives without any care in the world. It speaks to the level of political engagement in this country and how disinterested many citizens are with our government and political system.
But nevertheless, David Johnston took over the responsibility of being the Queen’s representative in Canada in front of parliament, distinguished Canadian politicians and of course his family. Johnston became Canada’s twenty-eighth Governor General, replacing Michaëlle Jean whose five year tenure in the position expired. While Governor Generals have no limit on the amount of time they can spend in the position, it is generally recognized that they will serve for roughly five years, then be on their way. As noted, many Canadians saw the event as not worthy of much attention, especially for a position that is often seen as outdated and irrelevant. However there is much significance in the appointment of Mr. Johnston to the position, and there are many questions about how he will conduct himself as Governor General.
For many young people born in the late 1980’s, the appointment of Johnston as Governor General is somewhat strange. For the first time in the twenty-first century, the position is once again held by an older white male. This may not seem to be of any significance, as we can point to numerous men fitting that description who have held the position prior. But for students like myself, who only have memories of Jean and her predecessor Adrienne Clarkson in the position, it is a departure from a female, who is of a visible minority. This point is only meant to serve as a commentary on how accustomed my generation has become to seeing one type of person fill the role of Governor General. For older generations, this will simply be a return to what they have known for many years.
Another significant aspect of Johnston’s appointment is the way in which he will conduct himself as Governor General. Both of his predecessors, Clarkson and Jean, greatly transformed the role and impact the modern head of state has in Canada. They took on a much more involved role in being an advocate for social causes in Canada and around the world. They both enjoyed much higher profiles, as they travelled to many destinations around the world, representing the country. While these are all within the job description, Clarkson and Jean tried to increase the relevance of the position in Canada. While they received much praise for this, they also endured enormous criticism as they travelled the world representing Canada from a position they were not elected to.
There is a danger in attempting to increase the visibility and profile of the Governor General. While they have ceremonial and official responsibilities within parliament and government, they lack any public support from which to take a stand. They must of course maintain political neutrality at all times, even in the face of difficult situations. Jean’s decision to side with Prime Minister Harper in December 2008 and prorogue parliament was met with criticism and support. Some viewed her decision as blatantly partisan, while others felt she was not overstepping her boundaries in doing so. History has shown us that our Governor Generals generally side with the incumbent government of the day, and perhaps that was the reason behind Jean’s decision. (We have the King-Byng affair to thank for that).
So the question remains whether Johnston will continue this trend, or if he will step back somewhat, and reduce the profile of the job. If he follows the lead of Clarkson and Jean, it will likely cement the new role of the Governor General in Canadian society. However, if he lowers the profile and chooses a much more quiet tenure for himself, it will leave the position open to interpretation for his successor. In the age of technology that we currently live in, it would almost be difficult for Johnston not to continue what Clarkson and Jean began. Whatever message he decides to put forward can be delivered much faster and to a wider audience than ever before. With regards to politics, there is no doubt that Johnston will have to continue as a prop of the government of the day, for acting as anything else would create many problems for an unelected individual.
All speculation aside, at this moment we need to welcome David Johnston to the position. Regardless of your feelings to the role itself, he has committed to serving his country, which is something very honourable. An extremely well educated individual, who is well respected in both the academic and political communities, Johnston will no doubt put his best effort forward. In addition, kudos must be given to Michaëlle Jean for her tenure. Likewise, she committed to serving her country and earned the respect of many Canadians in the process. The fact is that the position of Governor General is not going to go away. Despite the sentiments of many that it is an irrelevant and useless position, to get rid of it is impossible without an extreme overhaul of the Canadian political system which is unfathomable to think about. So instead of lamenting a position that will never go away, we should embrace it and show some love to our Governor Generals.