Memo to Trudeau prods Liberals to look at reviving vice-regal appointments board

OTTAWA — Senior officials advising Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have pressed him gently to rethink how the Liberals have chosen the Queen's representatives in Canada as he gets ready to make another such decision.

The task of coming up with candidates for vice-regal appointments — including Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, who was named in 2017 — has been with the Prime Minister's Office and its bureaucratic arm, the Privy Council Office after the Liberals abandoned a previously used outside advisory board.

A memo given to Trudeau shortly after the Liberals won re-election last fall suggests the process could be ready for a change.

The memo, which The Canadian Press obtained through the Access to Information Act, says that Trudeau could consider "re-engaging" the advisory committee to "give greater structure to the identification of potential candidates."

Already, Trudeau has a vice-regal appointment that needs to be made.

Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell reached the end of her five-year term during the federal election, when it would have been politically inappropriate for Trudeau to name her successor. She will remain in the position until her replacement is named.

Three more vice-regal appointments will likely be needed by the end of 2020, as the five-year terms for the lieutenant-governors of Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec are set to expire.

A spokeswoman for Trudeau said "there is no formal selection process" for lieutenant-governor appointments, adding they are made by cabinet on the prime minister's advice. Trudeau has used this informal process six times since coming to office.

"Rigorous search for candidates takes place to ensure that eminently qualified Canadians are selected to fill vice-regal and territorial commissioner positions, as demonstrated by previous appointments," Chantal Gagnon said in an email.

Under the Conservatives, there had been an advisory committee to offer up names for the governor general and provincial lieutenant-governors. The list wasn't binding, but it was developed through detailed consideration by experts about what the job entailed and who would make a good candidate.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper first created an ad hoc advisory committee when his government needed to find a new governor general in 2010, a process that led to the choice of David Johnston for the top job at Rideau Hall.

Harper, like Trudeau now, had a minority government, making the role of representative to the Queen key to maintaining some parliamentary stability.

Harper made the committee a permanent body in 2012, arguing that a non-partisan approach to vice-regal appointments was important for the country.

According to the memo, the advisory committee hasn't met since 2015. Instead, the Liberals pulled the process inside the PMO, despite using independent advisory boards to recommend names for both the Senate and the Supreme Court.

Penny Collenette, who was former prime minister Jean Chretien's director of appointments for four years, said it's often easy to come up with a list of eminent Canadians for vice-regal positions — the Order of Canada or similar provincial honours is a place to start — but tougher to get agreement on a successful candidate.

Whether it's an advisory committee, or within the PMO, the key is to consult widely and ensure discretion, Collenette said, pointing to the onerous gag order imposed on anyone called about a judicial appointment.

"There's not a perfect process," said Collenette, now an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa.

"It helps to consult as widely as possible, providing people are discreet. It's not helpful if you consult widely and then it turns into gossip."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2020.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press