Julie Payette: Science Meets Political Science

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement of Julie Payette as the next Governor-General of Canada was met with widespread praise throughout the Canadian political community. Payette’s experience as an astronaut, engineer, and business woman seemed to eminently qualify her for the viceregal post. Whereas outgoing Governor-General David Johnston epitomized the role of elder statesmen, Julie Payette came in as the young, modern Governor-General whose thinking is grounded in her past experiences in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

This is why it comes as a surprise that Payette’s recent comments regarding the role of science within Canadian governance, divine intervention, and climate change caused such controversy. The Governor-Generalship is an inherently apolitical position, and it is necessary that the Head of State’s representative keep an arm’s-length from anything that can even be considered as wading into the political realm of the country. Yet, this is exactly what she did.

Yes, the tone of Payette’s comment should have been more open to the natural division within the country over these topics. But she is exceptionally well qualified to discuss these issues, and her recent elevation to the highest position in Canada gives her the platform to do so.  In today’s world, there are far too few people that speak on issues they are not qualified to speak on—thankfully Payette at least bucks this trend.

Intentionally or not, the Prime Minister aligned the Governor-General with the Liberal Party and current Government that appointed her, bringing politics to an inherently apolitical position

Payette’s comments are neither official government policy nor an expression of the views of the nation, no matter how much her detractors would like to make them out to be. Nor did she implore he Prime Minister to adopt these policies as a condition of her appointment. Rather, the real issue over her comments came when the Prime Minister decided it would be a good idea to defend—no, applaud—Payette. Intentionally or not, the Prime Minister aligned the Governor-General with the Liberal Party and current Government that appointed her, bringing politics to an inherently apolitical position. Rather than the comments themselves, it is these actions by our political leadership which has caused many on the right in Canadian politics to question whether the Governor-General would be capable of staying above the political fray— especially in times when she would be needed to resolve a parliamentary or constitutional crisis. For instance, her critics will now argue if there is an unclear election result or hung parliament in the future, the Governor-General would not be able to put personal politics aside and choose the party most capable of forming a government, rather than the one most closely aligned to her own views.

It is here when this controversy becomes rather belittling of Payette and our political system. Julie Payette was chosen as Governor-General exactly because she embodied the best of Canadian values and would be wholly capable of putting aside her own personal politics to execute the duties of her office as they are to be executed-impartially. If there is any fault to be doled out, it is that of the Prime Minister and his Government for choosing to argue in favour of Julie Payette’s comments.

Despite her role as the objective steward of our constitutional monarchy, is it not self-evident that the Governor-General should be allowed to express her own views, given they do not bias her official duties? It seems that many have underestimated the ability of the McGill engineering graduate and astronaut to be able to separate her own views from those necessary to execute the duties of her office. This is rather disparaging and begs the question if one would challenge the objectivity of a more experienced Governor-General, or one whose pre-Rideau Hall life was more concerned with constitutional or legal matters.

Let us welcome the fact she has informed, science-based views on important issues as such as climate change, while continuing to trust her ability to put personal views aside when needed to resolve a constitutional dispute

The Governor-General should be a symbol of unity for all Canadians. No matter the government of the day, Canadians can look towards the Governor-General to rise above the political fray and be there as the representative for everyone. Julie Payette’s comment do not change that. We should welcome the fact we have a Governor-General who feels capable enough to actually say something about matters of importance, while continuing to uphold the impartiality needed for her role.

Certainly, Governor-General Payette could be more cautious with her choice of words or tone as to avoid any controversy as such in the future. Yet this should not stop her from espousing the beliefs that got in her into the position she sits in today. Rather than attacking the Governor-General for the qualities that make her an excellent choice in the first place, let us welcome the fact she has informed, science-based views on important issues as such as climate change, while continuing to trust her ability to put personal views aside when needed to resolve a constitutional dispute. It is only when politicians with their own political agendas wade into the business of the apolitical viceregal can the Governor-General fall into the trap of being accused of politicizing her role.

With that aside, let us allow the Governor-General to get back to her busy job of counting down the days to the next federal election!

 

If you disagree with the opinion presented in this piece, please email your response article to letters@bullandbearmcgill.com

 

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