In a little more than three years as viceregal, Johnston has visited 27 countries.
The current record — held by his predecessor Michaëlle Jean — is 32 countries during her five-year term.
However, rather than facing the same criticism often levelled at other high-flying governors general, Johnston is earning praise — certainly from Canada’s business community.
“I can’t say enough good things about this Governor General and what he does for Canada abroad,” said Jayson Myers, president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
Treated as head of state
Although Johnston’s role within Canada is largely symbolic, when he travels abroad, protocol dictates he be treated with all the pomp and circumstance of a head of state.
"Correct," Johnston said in an interview with CBC News. "That is the case, that other countries are very gracious at receiving us at the highest level and usually also very gracious with their time and the level of discussion we have."
It’s the prime minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs that decide where and when to deploy the Governor General, and his recent travel history is certainly in line with this government’s stated policy objective that “all diplomatic assets of the government of Canada will be marshalled on behalf of the private sector.”
In 2013 alone, Johnston’s official visits included:- China.
- Boston and New York.
- South Africa.
- South Korea.
“I see my role as strengthening and continuing Canada’s international relations efforts abroad,” said Johnston, “Trade being important, of course, but not being limited to trade.”
Stays away from politics
With no authority to negotiate contracts or policy on Canada’s behalf, Johnston said his visits present “another dimension” to Canada’s foreign relations.
His sights are set on the medium- and long-term objectives, while short-term goals are left to the political realm.
“We make our contribution to more peaceful international relations generally,” he said, “because this is a position that is not involved in politics or policy, then the nature of the discussions are somewhat different.”
Myers believes that change in approach affects the whole delegation. “I think when you are participating in a delegation with the Governor General you’re not there to represent your partisan views, you’re not there representing your organizational views — you are there really to represent Canada.”
John Manley has more perspective on these kinds of official visits than most. As a cabinet minister from 1995 to 2003, he led a number of missions and was part of the delegation when the prime minister or Governor General was at the head of the pack.
Now, as president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, Manley is again part of some of the delegations, but sits with the business crowd.
“We need all the support we can get,” said Manley, “We live in a very competitive world.”
Access for Canadian companies to the U.S., Western Europe and other developed economies is usually guided by the invisible hand of the market, but in other parts of the world — especially places where the largest industries are either owned or controlled by the state — a more visible hand is often needed.
“In parts of Asia, in other developing countries, having the prestige and the endorsement of the Canadian government becomes a very important matter in getting things done,” said Manley.
The prime minister’s schedule fills quickly with domestic demands as head of government, but fortunately for him, he has a secret weapon (of sorts) who can lead Canadian delegations through the same doors, hold audiences with the same international leaders, and sidestep some contentious issues because he has no policy or political responsibilities.
“It’s not cheating; every country does it,” Manley adds. ”In China, the Governor General followed the governor general of Australia doing the same thing. Regrettably, Canada’s head of state, the Queen, travels on behalf of British business when she goes abroad.”
Of course, VIP travel is not cheap. It can cost close to $1 million to shuttle the Governor General, entourage and delegates on some of these tours. Johnston said a cost-benefit analysis is carried out for every trip to make sure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.
Although Myers said it can be tough to put a price on some of the benefits gained, “It helps bilateral relationships in a number of ways, not only business, but in terms of overall foreign policy.”
Business leaders and those around Johnston say that what he most brings to the table is his "common touch," his way of connecting with people and building strong relationships.
It seems to be the aspect of the job that Johnston enjoys most.
“I’m a great believer in person-to-person diplomacy,” he said. ”I don’t think there is anything to substitute for the opportunity for one nation, especially a relatively small nation like ours, to have a personal relationship with other leaders in other countries, so that you begin to develop this important concept of trust that helps you through difficult times down the road, that helps you see and take advantage of opportunities on a number of fronts as they arise."