Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole claims Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in a “conflict of interest” by choosing a new governor general at the same time the Tory leader believes Trudeau is “planning” for an election.
The Tory leader made the accusation Monday at an Ottawa press conference to mark the return of the House of Commons from winter break.
O’Toole said Trudeau must discuss the matter with opposition parties before selecting a replacement for Julie Payette, who stepped down as the Queen’s representative in Canada last Thursday ahead of the release of a report concluding she oversaw a highly toxic work environment at Rideau Hall. Chief Justice Richard Wagner will fulfill the governor general’s duties on a temporary basis until a permanent successor is named.
Watch: A timeline of Payette’s controversies
“The prime minister must consult the opposition parties. He’s in a conflict of interest as he’s planning an election, in the middle of a pandemic, in a minority Parliament,” O’Toole said. “And his process previously failed. And he has sullied that office.”
The Prime Minister’s Office did not use an independent advisory committee on vice-regal appointments, set up by Stephen Harper’s government, when Trudeau tapped Payette for the job in 2017. Though the former astronaut was widely respected and well-known, media outlets would later reveal she faced similar allegations of humiliating and harassing staffers during earlier work with the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
Federal Liberals were also pressed about the vetting process behind Payette’s appointment when it came to light near the start of her tenure that she had a dismissed charge of second-degree assault from when she lived in Maryland in 2011. Payette called the assault charge “unfounded.”
O’Toole called the situation a “small constitutional crisis” caused by Trudeau’s PMO, and said that is why it is appropriate for other party leaders to weigh-in on what comes next.
“He must consult the other parties to show Canadians that there’s an assurance that there’s no politicization of this important role,” he said.
In a minority Parliament, the Liberal government can fall at almost any time. Such a scenario would put pressure on the governor general to decide if another election is appropriate or if O’Toole’s Conservatives should be given a chance to meet the confidence of the House of Commons, either through a coalition or an arrangement with other parties.
Still, O’Toole seemed to concede there is no constitutional obligation for Trudeau to first chat with opposition leaders before naming a governor general.
“Listen, the prime minister’s never under the obligation to do the right thing. I just think he should do the right thing,” he said. “Show some leadership, prime minister. Your misguided appointment, without proper verification, without proper consultation has led to the sullying of a very important office to Canada’s constitution, to our Canadian Armed Forces, to our parliamentary democracy.”
O’Toole raised the spectre that a spring election is coming, something the prime minister has said he does not want.
Trudeau ‘posturing for an election,’ O’Toole says
“We know (Trudeau is) posturing for an election. It’s inappropriate in a pandemic when there’s curfews in Quebec at night. So why not consult?” he said. “Why not do this properly to show that you’re not advancing the interest of the Liberal party, you’re advancing the interests of Canadians.”
O’Toole also made it clear he would not agree with Payette receiving the same kinds of benefits as former governors general once they leave the office, including a pension and regular income for the rest of their lives.
Former governors general Edward Schreyer, Adrienne Clarkson, Michaelle Jean, and David Johnston were each paid $149,484 in 2020 under the provisions of the Governor General’s Act, government figures reveal.
O’Toole said it would not be “appropriate” for Payette to receive such money from taxpayers.
“We should ask the prime minister if he assured the outgoing governor general that she would receive the regular courtesies extended to governors generals in the past,” he said.
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul also spoke about the issue at a virtual press conference Monday morning.
Paul said while she would like to see an independent committee vet the new governor general, she doesn’t necessarily think opposition parties need to be involved in the process. The independent committee could suggest names of potential vice-regals, so too could MPs involved with the group, but Paul said her main concern was ensuring “thorough vetting.”
Paul also pushed back at the suggestion Payette’s exit is a crisis. There’s “no vacuum,” she said, adding that it is “not correct or helpful” to portray the situation as dire. Paul said she had full confidence in the chief justice meeting the moment.
Philippe Lagassé, a Carleton University expert on the Westminster system, also disagrees with O’Toole’s claim of a conflict of interest with Trudeau naming Payette’s successor.
“However, as with all vice-regal appointments, the government should aim for someone that is not associated with any party and who would be welcome to those across the political spectrum,” he told HuffPost Canada via email.
“There is no convention, custom, or practice to consult the opposition, though the PM could do so if he chooses.”
No apologies from PM over fiasco
Trudeau was grilled about Payette’s resignation at a press conference Friday. He did not apologize for his role in selecting her for the role, nor share any regrets. Payette brought “enormous positives” to the job with her emphasis on science and service, the prime minister said, but all Canadians deserve a “safe and healthy workplace.”
The prime minister said that while the vetting for Payette’s appointment was “rigorous,” his government would “look at ways we can strengthen and improve the vetting process for high-level appointments” moving forward.
In September, Trudeau raised eyebrows by telling a Vancouver radio show Payette was “excellent” despite multiple reports of her allegedly inappropriate workplace conduct.
He also suggested at the time that losing Payette would mean a constitutional crisis in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis.
“We have an excellent governor general right now and I think, on top of the COVID crisis, nobody is looking at any constitutional crises,” he said.
With a file from The Canadian, files from Althia Raj