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Justin Trudeau offers no apology for making Julie Payette his governor general — or for her $150K a year payout

Justin Trudeau offers no apology for making Julie Payette his governor general — or for her $150K a year payout
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OTTAWA— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered no apology to Canadians or to staff who suffered workplace harassment for his ill-fated choice of former governor general Julie Payette and her hand-picked top aide Assunta Di Lorenzo.

At a news conference hours after Trudeau advised the Queen he will soon replace Payette, the prime minister insisted a “rigorous” vetting process was used in 2017 when he put Payette’s name forth but he will look at ways to “strengthen and improve” it for high-level appointments.

Trudeau would not, however, commit to using an arm’s-length panel to provide recommendations — as first employed by his predecessor Stephen Harper to select David Johnston — nor would the prime minister commit to allowing any Opposition party input into his choice, both steps Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is calling for.

Asked if he owed an apology to Rideau Hall employees after a damning report reached an “overwhelming” conclusion the viceregal workplace had become toxic under Payette and her aide, Trudeau said only he’s demonstrated his government’s commitment to workplaces “that are free and safe from harassment and in which people can do their important jobs in safety and security.”

When pressed, Trudeau offered thanks to current and former Rideau Hall staff for their work which he acknowledged was done “sometimes in very difficult situations.”

Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen’s Privy Council, in an interview with the Star, said the vacancy cannot go on “for months and months.”

But LeBlanc said before it is filled, that the government needs “a more robust vetting process, at a minimum.”

“So that is not acceptable.”

Trudeau appointed an outside firm to conduct the workplace review which invited current and former Rideau Hall staff, RCMP and military personnel who worked with Payette, and other “knowledgeable” people to come forward.

“It was stark. It painted a picture of a completely unacceptable workplace,” LeBlanc said. “Dozens and dozens” of past and former employees told stories that were consistent, and “were very troubling.”

LeBlanc and Privy Council Clerk Ian Shugart, spoke by phone with Payette Tuesday night about the report, which she received Monday. Trudeau met with her the following night, Wednesday, when she offered her resignation.

Payette’s resignation statement did not accept responsibility although she apologized for “tensions” in her office that had arisen in recent months, and suggested that she did not get a fair hearing. She said “notwithstanding” her belief everyone deserves “due process” she would resign for the good of the office.

LeBlanc countered that the review process was fair, conducted by experts in workplace relations, and the report was “conclusive beyond measure.”

“The report was not an investigation of specific allegations by person X against person Y where there’s like a hearing, and people can lawyer up. But the conclusions were overwhelming in the sense that the dozens and dozens of people who asked to be interviewed…had similar stories, and in the opinion of these experts…the findings were very troublesome, very stark.”

“The conclusion was explicit, it was overwhelming.”

Trudeau, asked if he had any regrets about appointing the former astronaut and engineer, did not answer directly. Instead he offered praise for Payette’s contributions before reiterating his government takes harassment allegations seriously.

“I think that Ms. Payette, with her emphasis on science and service, brought a great deal of positive aspects to the job, but obviously, everyone has the right to enjoy a safe and secure workplace. This is something that our government profoundly believes in and for this reason, we accepted the governor general’s resignation.”

Payette, like all governors general who leave office, is now entitled to a lifetime annuity — which provides a retirement pension of $150,000 a year, indexed to rise with the cost of living.

LeBlanc said the annuity is set out in federal law, and “there is no discretion there. That is what it is.”

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Former governors general are also eligible for a lifetime expense account, managed by Rideau Hall, and million-dollar grants to start a charitable organization after leaving office.

The Privy Council Office in a statement to the Star said the federal government “has provided financial support to former governors general to help establish a foundation. However, the gift is not an entitlement and the decision, including the amount of the gift, is made on a case-by-case basis.”

LeBlanc said any expenditures for post-mandate travel and other activities are subject to Treasury Board review and would be looked at “closely.”

Rideau Hall in a statement to the Star said the office of the secretary to the governor general covers “reasonable and justified administrative expenses” for former governors general and requires supporting documentation including original receipts and invoices.

Trudeau said Friday there are “very clear rules and regulations and processes and procedures in place to follow in these cases,” and those “will be followed, but obviously we’re always open to having discussions on changes that need to be made moving forward.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters Friday he remains concerned about Payette’s mistreatment of employees, and about whether she should be entitled to those sums of money.

“This doesn’t sit well with people, and I share that concern; that what we should be doing is making sure we make the right decision in the first place, but anytime there is inappropriate conduct, particularly towards employees, we’ve got to take a really hard look at — is that behaviour being rewarded or is it being discouraged?” he asked. “What do our actions tell employees?

LeBlanc said the Privy Council clerk will prepare advice for the prime minister on options for next steps in appointing Payette’s replacement.

Parliament resumes next week, amid an ongoing health and economic crisis and Trudeau is in a minority government position.

Trudeau said Richard Wagner, the chief justice of Canada, is an “extraordinary able individual” who will fulfil the governor general’s duties, and he would replace Payette “in due time.”

“Canadians need not be concerned about political or constitutional concerns on that level,” said the prime minister.

The role of a governor general — to give royal assent to legislation and to consider when and whether to dissolve Parliament at the request of a prime minister — is not just a ceremonial one, but a constitutional function as well.

LeBlanc said the chief justice should not be expected to do it for long because “he has a day job.

“I mean, if anybody is competent to exercise that constitutional function, surely it’s the chief justice of the Supreme Court in the sense he will understand exactly the constitutional role. There will be no confusion. In that sense it’s not worrisome. But it’s not respectful for his office that he holds to have it go for an extended period. That is the reason why in our view this can’t go on for months and months but we need to ensure the best possible person is suggested to her Majesty. And that’s what we’ll be looking at in the next week or so.”
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