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Governor-General Payette jeopardized her neutrality with secular spiel to scientists

Julie Payette's transgression is more serious than some suppose. In a speech last week, she celebrated secularism and science over faith and superstition in tones so derisive that the Conservative Leader protested and the Prime Minister rose to her defence, which only made things worse.

In presenting herself as an enlightened governor-general, did Ms. Payette inadvertently cast herself as a Liberal governor-general? If the next election produces an unstable House, can we count on her to rule impartially on who should be asked to form a government, or whether and when to accept a recommendation to prorogue or dissolve Parliament?

The governor-general exists to resolve such impasses. With her remarks on science and superstition, Ms. Payette has made it harder to credibly fill that role.

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Read more: Governor-General 101: Don't insult Canadians

We don't need to rehash exactly what the Governor-General said last Wednesday, because it wasn't her opinions that got her into trouble so much as her tone. "Can you believe that still, today, in learned societies and houses of government? …" and "that we are still debating and still questioning …" and "so many people, I'm sure you know them, still believe, want to believe …" Here was a Governor-General mocking those who do not share her world view.

In rising to her defence, Mr. Trudeau actually deepened the hole.

"We are a government grounded in science," he told reporters. Ms. Payette "has never hidden away her passion for science … and I applaud the firmness with which she stands in support of science and the truth," he added.

With those comments, Mr. Trudeau allied the Liberal Party with the Governor-General, in essence saying both celebrate the power of science over superstition.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, not wanting to be seen criticizing the Governor-General directly, instead criticized Mr. Trudeau for coming to her defence.

"It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion," he said on Facebook.

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So now we have the Liberals: We are the party of reason and the scientific method and the Governor-General is with us. And the Conservatives: We are the party that respects rights of all people to worship as they choose without being judged – in particular, by the Prime Minister and the Governor-General.

A stark divide. A wedge issue, even. What on Earth was the GG thinking?

These are early days. We should assume that Ms. Payette received unsound advice, or failed to follow the advice she received. Someone in the Prime Minister's Office is no doubt having a quiet word with someone at Rideau Hall, so that this mistake is not repeated.

But Ms. Payette needs to get the hang of this job, quickly. Yes, the next election is two years away, but consider: What if the NAFTA talks fail and Mr. Trudeau decides on a snap election to obtain a mandate for whatever follows? What if the voters return a hung Parliament?

After the BC Liberals were defeated in the legislature in the wake of last May's election in that province, Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon rejected Christy Clark's advice to dissolve the legislature, and instead invited NDP Leader John Horgan to form a government.

Throughout those tense days, no one questioned Ms. Guichon's impartiality. If Ms. Payette is forced to make a difficult choice when the House meets after the next election, will all Canadians trust her impartiality?

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The Governor-General speaks for everyone – believer and non-believer, people of science and people of faith and people of both. She must represent all, regardless of what she might think of some.

Julie Payette should be very careful with what she says and how she says it from here on in.

Governor-General Julie Payette takes aim at bad science (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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