Getting serious: a choice of substance over showmanship

Isn’t he cuddly: David Johnston accepts his new position


The announcement that David Johnston will be Canada’s next governor general was a rare occasion when substance and salesmanship meshed seamlessly for Stephen Harper, rewarding the Prime Minister with arguably his best burst of publicity since he sat down at a piano last fall to sing With a Little Help From My Friends.

Selecting the Queen’s representative in Canada is, of course, more important than picking which old Beatles hit to croon at a National Arts Centre gala. Johnston has rightly won wide praise as an irreproachable choice. Most recently as president of the University of Waterloo and, before that, McGill University’s long-time principal, he ranks among Canada’s most respected advocates for higher education.

His credentials as a former law professor are a valuable bonus. In an era of minority government, there’s always a chance that as governor general he will be pressed to make a delicate constitutional decision. His predecessor, Michaëlle Jean, relied on expert advice when she agreed to Harper’s controversial request that she prorogue Parliament in late 2008, to prevent an opposition coalition from supplanting his government. Jean handled that testing moment perfectly well, but Johnston’s legal background would lend him reassuring personal credibility in a similar situation.

He will also bring to Rideau Hall, when he assumes the largely ceremonial vice-regal post in the fall, a track record of service on a string of panels and round tables, covering everything from the Internet to the environment. His reputation in that sort of role is as a builder of consensus among government, business and academia. If that makes him sound like a cautious, elite player, he is.

On that basis, Johnston hardly looked likely to capture the public imagination. But he’s also a former Harvard University hockey star, a small-town northern Ontario boy made good, and a family man.

Putting the accent on those attributes was the salesmanship part of the way Harper’s team introduced him to Canadians—not as an ivory tower type, but as an avuncular 69-year-old, surrounded by wife, daughters and cute grandchildren, as he stepped up to a podium in Parliament’s ornate Senate foyer to graciously accept the job offer.

Yet Johnston’s professional achievements and personal appeal wouldn’t have been worth much if his appointment looked crassly calculated for political advantage. Harper went to great lengths to avoid that taint. His aides stressed that Johnston was proposed by an independent expert committee, not political staffers, and that partisanship didn’t figure into their consideration of potential candidates.

That process is a major improvement on past practice. After former prime minister Paul Martin named Jean in 2005, for instance, it came out that he had been intrigued from the moment his principal secretary rather casually mentioned the Montreal broadcaster’s name as a possibility. The notion that a prime minister’s instinctive enthusiasm might be the critical factor in recruiting the person who carries out the duties of the head of state in Canada hardly sounds rigorous enough.

And when the decision is left entirely to the whims of prime ministers and their tacticians, there’s little check on the temptation to merely make a splash. Jean and her predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, distinguished themselves on the vice-regal job, but their glossy media personas, rather than any more substantial qualifications, undoubtedly led to their being considered in the first place. Speculation about, say, Jean Béliveau or Rick Hansen getting the nod signalled that a corrective was in order.

Naming Johnston represents that return to seriousness. The committee that recommended him was chaired by Sheila-Marie Cook, Jean’s secretary and deputy, and included other appropriately qualified experts, like the Senate’s usher of the Black Rod and the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia’s private secretary. It also included two political science professors, McGill’s Chris Manfredi and the University of Calgary’s Rainer Knopff, with close ties to the Prime Minister’s inner circle—suggesting claims from Harper’s office that the process was entirely apolitical were somewhat exaggerated.

Still, the process should become the template for all future vice-regal searches, with certain improvements. The committee’s membership should be made public in advance. A list of the legal experts, past and present politicians, and other luminaries it consults, should be published. The selection process should be made as transparent as possible.

That goes for every other senior government appointment, too. Back in 2006, Harper backed away from establishing his promised impartial public appointments commission. He was angry over the refusal of opposition parties to accept his choice, Calgary businessman Gwyn Morgan, to head the new body. Now that his choice of Johnston has served as a reminder of how a solid appointment, based on a sound selection process, can prompt an outpouring of praise, it’s time for Harper to return to reforming the system for filling hundreds of less prominent federal posts.

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