Canada's top judge is now acting Governor General, but expert urges speedy replacement
TORONTO -- Julie Payette’s resignation amid allegations of workplace harassment means that the chief justice of the Supreme Court will now assume the governor general's powers, but a Crown expert says this temporary appointment should be as brief as possible as it presents potential conflicts.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accepted Payette’s resignation on Thursday following reports of a workplace harassment investigation that sources described to CTV News as “damaging.”
Chief Justice of Canada Richard Wagner will fulfill the role of administrator on an interim basis until Trudeau recommends a new governor general to the Queen, something Trudeau says he will do “in due course.”
Philippe Lagasse, a Carleton University expert on the Westminster system and the Crown, described Payette’s resignation as “a bit sad, really,” and stressed the importance of limiting the amount of time Wagner stays in this role.
“I have to say, as somebody who is concerned about how offices appear in public, it’s really not ideal to have the chief justice of the Supreme Court act as an administrator for any long period of time,” Lagasse told CTV’s Power Play on Thursday.
The reason: the Governor General is in charge of turning bills into law through royal assent. Having an active Supreme Court judge in this role could be potentially problematic down the road, Lagasse said.
“We can think in our constitutional metaphysics that they’re wearing a different hat when they’re providing royal assent, you can imagine that it could create discomfort on the part of the judge who wants to be seem completely and utterly impartial if ever that legislation appears before them in a constitutional or legal challenge,” he said.
Asked about the timeline to replace Payette, intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said “obviously it’s not a question of months.”
“The constitutional role can be fulfilled as of tonight by Chief Justice Wagner and until a successor is sworn in,” LeBlanc told CTV’s Power Play.
“We obviously haven’t turned our attention to the details of how that successor would be recommended to Her Majesty, but we’ll have more to say about that in the coming days. But it’s not a circumstance that can go on for months and months.”
The Governor General holds the second-highest office in Canada after the Queen, with the role out-ranking even the prime minister. That’s because the Governor General can be called on to make decisions related to the formation of government, such as to prorogue Parliament or dissolve Parliament on the advice of a prime minister to trigger an election.
The Governor General also plays a key role in minority governments, as is the current case. If a minority government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons, the prime minister would then have to request Parliament be dissolved. The Governor General then has the discretion whether to agree to that, and call an election, or allow another party in the House to attempt to form a government that would have the confidence of the House.
For example, in 2008, Stephen Harper asked then-Governor General Michaelle Jean to prorogue Parliament to avoid a non-confidence vote that he was expected to lose, which she allowed.
Everything considered, Lagasse said it’s in the country’s best interests to appoint a new Governor General pronto.
“To the extent possible, we should have a full-on governor general appointed as soon as possible, given the possibility of an election on the horizon,” he said.
“And ultimately, I would imagine the chief justice is not really keen on the idea of having to make some of these decisions and make some of the calls, particularly if another election returns another hung Parliament, and if there’s controversy around a dissolution of Parliament in the middle of a pandemic. These are all things that I imagine the chief justice doesn’t want to be particularly involved with either.”
CTV royal commentator Richard Berthelsen said that the Governor General plays a critical constitutional role in Canada as a representative of the Queen, but is also seen as a moral leader.
“So this really was a day that, in a lot of ways, had to happen. It’s sad that it has happened, but the report has left everyone with no alternative,” Berthelsen told CTV News Channel.
With files from CTV’s Rachel Aiello in Ottawa and The Canadian Press